BILLINGS — Two nights ago, Huntley Project senior Noah Bouchard passed 1,000 career points. The milestone would have meant next to nothing if his season didn’t extend beyond this week.
The Red Devils’ future was murky for three quarters of Friday’s Southern B Divisional semifinal game against Lodge Grass. It became clear in the fourth.
Bouchard scored 14 of his game-high 29 points in the fourth quarter, in which No. 3-ranked Project outscored the No. 1 Indians 27-10 to earn a 75-60 victory at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark. With the win, the Red Devils earned their first state tournament berth since 2015.
“Easily the best week of basketball” of my career, Bouchard said. “This is definitely the best win I’ve had.”
Project (15-4) isn’t some struggling program that bottled lightning this season. The Devils were the top-ranked Class B team entering last year’s divisional tourney, and they advanced to the semifinals. The state title hopeful lost its next two games to miss the State B tournament.
Other than Bouchard’s brother, Dawson Community College signee Isaiah Bouchard, Project returned all of its key players this season. But so did Lodge Grass, which went on to share the state championship with Fairfield, and the rest of the Southern B is loaded again.
The Devils lost to the Indians 66-58 on Jan. 8 and to Columbus and Colstrip last month. They beat Lodge Grass on Feb. 2, but Indians star Damon Gros Ventre was out with an injury. There were many reasons for the Devils to doubt if they could break their state drought. Instead, they used last year's disappointment as fuel.
“There wouldn’t be at least a week that’d go by that we wouldn’t talk about it,” Bouchard said. “We were like, ‘This is what we’re training for.’ ”
Step one was beating Three Forks, the team that defeated Project in last year’s divisional semis, in the first round on Wednesday. Then came the Devils’ friendly rival, which had a healthy Gros Ventre this time.
Friday’s game was close throughout, but Project held a slight edge for most of it. Bouchard gave the Devils a 24-21 lead with an and-one at the end of the first quarter, and they didn’t trail again until the end of the third quarter, 50-48.
Minutes after the game ended, Bouchard couldn’t believe the fourth quarter differential when he heard it, even though he scored Project’s first 10 points to turn a four-point deficit into a two-point lead. Tough Devil defense and cold Lodge Grass shooting turned a would-be classic into an easy win.
“Definitely in the fourth quarter, I felt momentum, but I didn’t know it was that much momentum,” Bouchard said. “To come out here and just prove that we belong, it’s almost unexplainable. It’s overwhelming.”
At one point in the fourth, Bouchard pointed to the heavens. His finger was directed at his late grandmother, Joan Branger, who was also the wife of Project coach Mark Branger. Joan died on Jan. 23 at the age of 67.
“I want to go out and play for her and play for him,” Bouchard said. “I always think about how I can make her happy."
Bouchard shot 9 of 16 from the field and 10 of 12 from the free throw line. Fellow senior Tim Rose scored 14 points (4 of 8 on field goals), senior Jake Fox had 12 points (6 of 9) and eight rebounds and senior Brandon Geck added 10 points (10 of 10 on free throws) and six boards.
Gros Ventre led Lodge Grass (14-4) with 17 points (7 of 22 FG) and had game-highs in rebounds (10) and assists (six). Fellow junior DC Stewart added 11 points (4 of 7).
The last time Project played in a divisional title game was also 2015, and it lost to Columbus. The Devils will try to win their first divisional championship since 2014 at 8 p.m. Saturday against No. 2 Manhattan.
The Indians will play a loser-out game against Lame Deer at 11 a.m. Saturday. If they win, they’ll advance to a loser-out, winner-to-state consolation final.
"No nervousness whatsoever," said Lodge Grass coach Josh Stewart. "We've got to battle our way out, and that's what we fully intend to do. There's no caving, there's no folding, there's none of that. It's resiliency, strength and courage. No matter what, we say, 'To God be the glory.' "
Manhattan edges Colstrip in other semifinal game
A Manhattan fan yelled, “Happy birthday Caden,” after senior Caden Holgate was introduced before Friday’s Southern B Divisional semifinal game at the Metra. How’s this for an 18th birthday present: an exciting win over Colstrip to clinch the Tigers’ first state tournament berth since 2012.
“A win’s always great,” Holgate said. “It’s just that much better today.”
No. 2-ranked Manhattan beat No. 7 Colstrip 47-41 to advance to the Southern B Divisional title game. There were 17 lead changes, and the final margin was tied for the largest of the game.
“To get to continue playing senior year, not everyone gets the chance to do that, so it’s awesome,” Holgate said.
The Tigers (16-2) looked like they might pull away in the third quarter, when they went on a 10-3 run to build a 31-25 lead. But the Colts (13-5) took the lead back early in the fourth and were up 39-38 — with possession — with 1:41 left.
Less than 20 seconds later, senior Tate Bowler snagged a steal and made a fast break layup to put the Tigers up one. On the next possession, Holgate stole the ball and passed to Bowler, who made another layup and was fouled. He made the free throw to put Manhattan up four points.
“It was unreal,” Bowler said of the two-possession sequence. “I knew I had to help out my team in some way. I saw the opportunity and just took advantage.”
Colstrip cut the deficit back to two with about 30 seconds left, but Holgate made both free throws on the following possession to all but seal the win.
A Holgate to Bowler connection is familiar to Manhattan fans. With Holgate at quarterback and Bowler at wide receiver, the Tigers beat Fairfield in November for the State B football championship. Several other football players, such as junior Corban Johnson, are on the basketball team.
“We’re just a tough group of guys,” Bowler said. “Our athleticism, it’s hard to cover all of us. We all just want to win.
Bowler scored a game-high 14 points (5 of 10 from the field, 4 of 4 from the free throw line), Johnson had 12 (5 of 7 on field goals) and Holgate added 10 (2 of 7 FG, 6 of 7 FT).
Colstrip sophomore Jaren Knows His Gun (3 of 4 FG), junior Rilee Small-Fisher (3 of 7) and senior Shay Wilkie (2 of 4) each scored seven points.
The Colts will play a loser-out, winner-to-consolation game against Townsend at 11 a.m. Saturday.
In Friday's Southern B Divisional loser-out games, Townsend handled Three Forks 52-28, and Lame Deer beat Columbus 41-35. For recaps of those games, visit the Full Court Press.