'Run and gun' Cowgirls beat Billings Central 59-52

Custer County District High School junior Kaelei Koenig shot 10-22 from the field and junior guard Ashley Venable hit three 3-pointers in a row as the run-and-gun Cowgirls held off the Lady Rams of Billings Central Catholic 59-52 on Friday. 

“We haven’t beat Central in a while,” said Cowgirls head coach Aaron Essex, “and it felt good.” 

The Cowgirls held a nine-point lead going into the fourth quarter, but Central’s Camryn Gunderson’s ability to find the bottom of the net and the under-the-basket finesse of Central’s 6’1” freshman Olivia Moten-Schell kept Central in the game. 

Gunderson led Central’s fourth-quarter rally with a field goal, followed by a basket by Moten-Schell, and then Gunderson sank a three-pointer that was quickly followed by another bucket by Moten-Schell to tie the game. Melissa Hanser hit a free throw for the Lady Rams’ first lead of the game. Gunderson hit another three to put Central up by four. 

Venable answered with a field goal for the Cowgirls to drop the Rams’ lead to two with two minutes left, and after a Central turnover, Venable converted an offensive rebound into a basket to tie the game at 51.

Custer County senior guard Jenna Swope broke the tie with a field goal and Bailee Murnion hit a crucial three-pointer. Following a huge steal by Venable, Central’s Jillian Hardenbrook earned her fifth foul, sending Murnion to the line with 34 seconds left and the Cowgirls up by five. Central rebounded the missed free throw, but Venable grabbed another steal and Kyra Oakland, fouled on the shot, dropped in her first free throw. Gunderson rebounded Oakland’s second attempt and Oakland drew the foul, setting Gunderson up for the double bonus. 

Gunderson hit her second free throw to keep the Rams within five. On the return trip down court, Murnion drew a foul and missed both attempts from the line, but Oakland snagged the offensive board, kicked it out to Murnion, who dropped it in to seal the win. 

The Rams didn’t score until midway through the first quarter thanks to the Cowgirls’ oppressive defense. 

“[Junior] McKenzie Taylor did really well helping us with the press, and Kyra had some huge steals right in a row,” Essex added.

Koenig set up shop under the net and dropped in 10 points in the first quarter, while junior forward Murnion added a bucket and two points from the charity line and Venable notched a free throw.  

Venable’s threes from behind the arc boosted the Cowgirls for a 21-point second quarter, including two buckets and two free throws from sophomore guard Oakland. 

“Ashley played well,” said Essex. “She knocked down some great outside shots for us, and Bailee hit some outside shots that really helped us out.” 

“I didn’t think [the three-pointers] were going in,” said Venable of her 9-point run. “But afterwards I just had to get back in my groove and keep playing.” 

The Lady Rams came out running after halftime, holding Koenig to just four points in the half.   

“Kaelei played great in the first half,” said Essex. “She got a little frustrated in the second half when they got to fouling her a bit, but she’ll work through it.”

The Rams outscored the Cowgirls 14-10 in the third and snagged six offensive rebounds, but it was the aggressive defense and fearlessness of making and taking passes in traffic that put the Cowgirls on top. 

“We kept our turnovers down and turned them over more than we usually do,” Essex said.  “I was proud of the girls; they played well tonight.” 

The Custer County junior varsity lost 37-36 to Billings Central despite a near three-pointer from Cowgirl sophomore Channing Ellingson at the buzzer.