Three weeks remain in basketball’s regular season – a point in the winter when schools start jockeying for position in the playoffs. After shutting down briefly to quarantine, Jefferson High’s boys squad returned to action — and both it and the Lady Panthers faced important conference match-ups.
Those tightly fought contests went down in Three Forks, where the Panthers traveled on Friday. The girls kicked things off with a game that would go down to the wire. The Lady Panthers fought to an early 13-10 lead, led by Dakota Edmisten’s seven points — but the second quarter was a disaster, as Jefferson could manage only Sam Zody’s basket as Three Forks surged to a 21-15 halftime lead.
The Panthers came out with determination in the third, as Rachel Van Blaricom put in eight and the defense held the Wolves to just four points. Going into the fourth, Jefferson held a slim 29-25 lead. Then, Grace Alexander sank a pair of baskets, Van Blaricom added a bucket and it turned to free throws to decide the game. The Panthers hit four of six and Three Forks was zero for two — giving Jefferson a 39-34 conference win. Van Blaricom led the scoring with 15 points, while Edmisten added 11, Alexander and Cia Stuber 4 each, Zody 3, and Abbie Youde 2.
The boys’ game came down to one quarter. With six points from Trent McMaster and four each from Joe Visser and Tyler Harrington, the Panthers held a slim 16-15 lead at the end of one. But strange things happen in high school sports, and the second quarter was all Wolves: Three Forks piled on 23 points while the Panthers struggled to get anything to go through the hoop, ending with just three points. Those disastrous eight minutes would decide the game.
The Panthers came out in the third with new energy and started chipping away at the 17-point hole: Braden Morris led the way in the fourth with a pair of three-pointers and a two pointer, and Jefferson outscored Three Forks, 17-9 — but time ran out on the comeback , and the Wolves held on for a 60-51 win.
Three Panthers scored in double figures: McMaster with 15, Visser with 12, and Morris with 11. In my opinion, Tyler Harrington is one of the best point guards in the district, consistently bringing the ball up court under mostly heavy pressure, setting up plays and then feeding the ball open teammates. He is very unselfish and a great ball handler — and he contributed 7 points. Wade Rykal added 4, and Jake Genger 2.
On Saturday, Jefferson traveled to Choteau for non-conference games. This time, the boys led off. The teams stayed close early, with the lead changing several times until the panthers finally took the lead in with a two by Morris and a three by Harrington with a couple seconds left in the period.
The Panthers went on a run in the second: Genger hit a pair of free throws, Rykal nailed a two, Visser sank a three, and Jefferson was up by 10. At the half, it was 34-23, Jefferson. The Panthers kept it going in the third, with five players putting down the first 16 points. Zach Zody’s three pointer made it 58-30, and a pair of three pointers and a basket by Harrington gave the panthers a 62-32 lead going into the final eight minutes of play.
That cushion widened to 80-48 — and then sportsmanship really showed at the end. A special young man came into the game for Choteau and took two long-range shots. The Panthers rebounded the second and passed it back to the player who hit his third shot, igniting both sides of the gym. Really a special moment that shows what kind of kids the Panthers are.
Final score: 80-50. Rykal and Visser led with 14 points each, while McMaster added 12, Genger 10, Morris 9, Harrington 9, Zody 8, and Tom Meyer and Cade Coate 2. Unofficially, Genger tied a school record with six blocked shots.
The Lady Panthers put on a shooting show. Stuber buried a pair of three-pointers right off the bat and hit another three before the quarter ended. Van Blaricom and Edmisten added threes, as Jefferson knocked down 21 points for a 21-15 edge.
In the second, MacKenzie Layng hit a pair of three-pointers, Edmisten and Stuber added threes and the Panthers took a 43-22 lead at the half. Youde made it 48-27 and the Panthers widened the gap to 63-38 at the end of three. What a show the girls put on for their faithful fans who were on their feet, supporting each other with unselfish ball-sharing. Jefferson cooled off a bit in the fourth, but another three by Van Blaricom put the game out of reach – and the Panthers won, 76-63.
The Panthers combined for 11 three-pointers. Stuber led scoring with 24 points, Van Blaricom 20, Edmisten 18, Layng 7, Youde, Zody, and Izzy Morris 2, and Arena Faler 1.
The hoopsters face another busy couple of weeks. On Monday the varsity boys were set to make up a game in Whitehall; and on Thursday, both teams travel to Manhattan Christian. The C teams will play at East Helena on Friday. And the squads play at Sweet Grass County on Saturday and Manhattan on Monday.
The District 5B tournament is set to start on Tuesday, February 23, continuing through that Friday. In a nod to pandemic scheduling, the higher-seeded team will host each playoff game, with three teams advancing to Division in Billings March 3-6.