Slow starters out of the gate this season, the Butte Lady Bulldogs made a statement Friday night that they might be ready to get to the same level that saw them reach the State AA championship game last season.
The Lady Bulldogs turned what was still a one-possession game midway through the fourth quarter into a 57-43 victory over the third-ranked Billings West Lady Bears at the West gym, getting 28 points from Lexie Nelson and a combined 21 from Gwenn Abbott and Brianne Holland-Stergar.
Butte, 21-2 a year ago, moved to 7-3 and 2-1 in the Eastern AA. The win was a season-high third in a row for the Lady Bulldogs, who were the pick to win the league in the coaches' preseason poll.
"I'm happy with where we're at right now, I think we're progressing," Butte coach Jeff Arnston said. "We're getting good play out of our starters and we're getting better play each game out of our bench, so I like the direction our team is headed."
Nelson, a 5-foot-8 junior, missed the first two games of the season with a foot injury, but the all-state guard looked back to her usual self, if not better. She made 7 of 12 shots from the floor and was 11-for-11 from the free throw line. She made three 3-pointers and she scored 12 of Butte's last 15 points as the Lady Bulldogs pulled away from a 42-39 lead with 4:49 to play.
"We just refused to lose that game," Nelson said.
Holland-Stergar had 10 points and 13 rebounds, and Abbott finished with 11 points for Butte, which plays at Billings Senior today.
West came into the game with a six-game winning streak and riding high from an 80-point performance in its previous game. Friday's performance, though, was a far cry from that. The Lady Bears made just 17 of 54 shots (31 percent), and the 43 points proved to be their second-lowest point total of the season.
"We never got in rhythm, we were disjointed, didn't make plays, didn't finish shots," West coach Greta Buehler said. "It was just not very efficient. We were just kind of back on our heels the whole game."
Danielle Muri scored 12 points to lead the Lady Bears and Alex Black, Janiel Olson and Cassie Langstraat all had seven points. West's best chance to take control of the game came in the third quarter when Butte was held scoreless for a three-minute stretch, but the Lady Bears (8-3, 4-1) scored just two points of their own and still trailed 33-27 at that point.
"It's not what we're used to," Beuhler said of her team's offensive woes. "I think it's a blip on the radar and we'll get back to work, get after it and fix some things. There's a long way to go in conference."