For the last few years, the Custer County District High School Cowboy basketball team has been getting closer and closer to cracking through the Eastern A and advancing to the State A tournament.
Thanks to a remarkable run at the Eastern A Tournament last weekend, the Cowboys will finally break an 11-year drought at the State A Tournament this weekend in Great Falls.
“For the most part it’s finally sunk in,” Cowboy senior Brac Warren said. “But it’s still awesome. Especially since it’s been so long since we’ve been there.”
The Cowboys have not played in the State A Tournament since the 2002-03 season. They open the tournament on Thursday at 6:30 p.m., against Southwestern A champion Dillon.
“They’re more than ready to play,” Cowboys third-year head coach Houston Finn said. “They’re excited and ready to get playing. They’re feeling good.”
In the long history of basketball state championships in the state of Montana, the Cowboys and Dillon have the most among Class A teams. Each school has won eight state basketball championships. But while Dillon has been a state tournament regular, it will be a completely new experience for any of the Cowboys.
“The biggest thing is we have to compete like we did at Divisionals,” Cowboys third-year head coach Houston Finn said. “Our goals area little different. Last week we were just wanting to advance, and this one is the big one. We just have to put our best effort out there every minute.”
For reference, the current seniors for the Cowboys were in first-grade the last time the Cowboys reached the state tournament, meaning the juniors were in first-grade and sophomores Connor Torstenbo and Gavin Gundlach hadn’t reached the school system yet.
“We just have to stay focused,” Warren said. “We can’t get wrapped up in everything else. We just have to play our own game, not worry about what else is going on.”
The Cowboys entered the Eastern A Divisional with a 5-13 record and were the sixth-place team, out of six teams, going into the tournament.
But as they have shown the last few years, the Cowboys saved their best ball for the postseason.
In the first-round, the Cowboys took on the third-seed, Billings Central. The Cowboys, who beat Central once earlier in the season, opened the game on an 11-2 run and maintained that lead throughout the game.
The 63-56 win over Central moved the Cowboys into the semifinals, where they have had issues dating back to the 1990s.
The Cowboys have reached the semifinals each of the last three seasons, and have been competitive in years past, but they had not reached the Eastern A championship game since 1997.
Standing in their way was Glendive, the fifth-ranked team in the state and the second-seed in the Eastern A.
The Cowboys led by as many as 11 in the game, but had that lead erased to 33-31 going into the fourth.
The lead was traded between the teams throughout the fourth and in the final minute, the game was tied at 41.
Glendive whittled the time down to the final seconds, but missed their go-ahead basket.
After a timeout, the Cowboys got the ball into Warren’s hands and he drilled a three-pointer just before the buzzer to give the Cowboys a thrilling, history-making 44-41 win.
The win put the Cowboys into the Eastern A championship game for the first time since 1997, and with Central beating Hardin on Saturday afternoon, the Cowboys had their first ticket to the State A Tournament since 2003.
But the Cowboys were looking for one more upset, taking top-ranked Laurel to the final minute before Laurel escaped with a 39-38 win.
“I wasn’t really happy with my performance in the championship game,” Warren said. “So there’s some motivation at state. We know we can play with the top teams.”
The championship game was the first time this season that Warren was held below 10 points. He finished with five in the loss.
Warren has led the Cowboys all season. He enters the state tournament averaging 17.8 points per game. Gavin Gundlach and Timmy Regan average around eight points per game. Regan was fantastic in the Eastern A Divisional, averaging 16.3 points per game.
The Cowboys face a very stiff test on Thursday against Dillon.
The Beavers come into the state tournament with an 18-2 record on the season. The spent most of the season ranked number-one in the state, with their lone loss coming against Class AA top-ranked Helena Capital.
They lost their first Class A game on February 21st, 62-59 to defending state champion Stevensville.
The Beavers rectified that loss in the Southwestern A championship game, beating Stevensville 55-34.
Dillon is led by 6’4 senior guard Troy Scott. Scott comes in averaging 20.7 points per game, third in the state. He has scored over 30 three times this season, including a 36 points effort against Class AA Butte.
No other player on the Dillon roster averages more than seven points per game.
“We’ve watched some film on Dillon,” Finn said. “They have one kid that averages over 20 per game and he’s a good player. They play a lot of guys and get up-and-down the court. We’ll have to control the tempo.”
The winner of their first round game will advance to the semifinals on Friday night at 8 p.m., against the winner of Belgrade/Polson. The losers will face elimination on Friday afternoon at 3 p.m.
“It’s just a matter of staying disciplined,” Finn said. “And enjoying the process. We’ll go out, have fun and have a good tournament.”
In the other first-round games, Laurel (18-2) will play Stevensville (13-8) at 12:30 p.m., Columbia Falls (16-4) will play Havre (7-13) at 2 p.m., and Belgrade (14-6) will play Polson (7-15) at 8 p.m.
Notable teams that did not advance to the state tournament include: Butte Central (17-4), Browning (16-5), Glendive (14-6) and Frenchtown (13-8).
In each of the four conferences tournaments, the top-seed won. None of the four second-seeds advanced.