BILLINGS — The Billings West boys and girls, who are a combined 32-4 this season, look to turn regular-season championships into divisional titles at the Eastern AA basketball tournament, which begins Thursday at Alterowitz Gymnasium on the campus of Montana State Billings.
Both Golden Bears’ programs were undefeated in league play — 12-0 — and will have first-round byes into Friday’s semifinals.
In all, four boys teams and four girls teams will qualify for the Class AA state tournament to be held in Bozeman starting March 12. This is the third year of the AA divisional tournament format, and the first time it’s being held in Billings.
Here’s a quick look at the first-round games of the divisional, which runs through Saturday):
Billings West (17-1), first-round bye: The Golden Bears are charging into the tournament on a 16-game winning streak. West, which was No. 2 in the final 406mtsports.com Class AA rankings, boasts the league’s top defense in terms of points allowed (837 total, 46.5 per game).
Bozeman (10-8) vs. Billings Senior (8-10), 12:30 p.m.: The defending state champion Hawks have alternated wins and losses over the course of their last eight games in what is their last season with coach Wes Holmquist before he takes over the girls program at Gallatin High in Bozeman next season. The Broncs are still in the process of transitioning after the season-ending injury to starting point guard Junior Bergen, who broke his right elbow and wrist against Great Falls CMR on Feb. 21. The Broncs are 1-2 without Bergen, who was the team’s top scorer (18.0 points per game) and assist man (4.33 apg) at the time of his injury.
Belgrade (2-16) vs. Billings Skyview (12-6), 3:30 p.m.: The Panthers closed the regular season by beating Senior for their first Class AA win since joining the classification this season. Fifth-ranked Skyview has handled Belgrade both times this season, winning 70-37 and 51-33.
Great Falls CMR (5-13) vs. Great Falls (12-6), 6:30 p.m.: The Electric City rivals travel 220 miles just to meet up in the Magic City. Great Falls, which features AA’s leading scorer and rebounder in Drew Wyman, swept the regular-season series. The Rustlers will also have to contend with Levi Torgerson, who leads the state in 3-pointers made.
Billings West (15-3), first-round bye: Winners of 13 in a row, the No. 4-ranked Golden Bears have scored more than 100 points than the next most-prolific offense in the Eastern AA (they’ve scored 987 points to Skyview’s 860).
Great Falls (10-8) vs. Billings Senior (7-11), 2 p.m.: The Bison came out of the gate strong, winning 8 of 11, before tailing off for a 2-5 finish. One of those wins came against the Broncs, who are coming off a season-high 62-point game, though it came in a loss to Billings Skyview.
Belgrade (1-17) vs. Great Falls CMR (10-8), 5 p.m.: The Panthers haven’t won since Dec. 14, but their spirits were buoyed by the return of senior Gabby Weber in early February. Weber missed a year of action with a leg ailment that required two surgeries and extended rehab before finally returning last month. No. 5 CMR’s Allie Olsen averages 10.4 points, 10.0 rebounds and 5.5 blocks per game, and had a triple-double (13 points, 11 rebounds, 10 blocks) in the Rustlers’ penultimate game of the season against West.
Bozeman (7-11) vs. Billings Skyview (8-10), 8 p.m.: Two very capable but also unpredictable teams meet up in Thursday’s nightcap. And their season series encapsulates that. Bozeman won the first meeting 53-38 before the Falcons turned the tables less than three weeks later with a 40-36 win. Skyview, seeking its first state tournament berth since 2001, is 7-5 since its loss to the Hawks.
Email Mike Scherting at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @GazSportsSchert