With a little over three minutes remaining in last year’s Class B championship game, Anaconda held a lead over Malta and it looked as if their title drought was going to end. History had other plans. A year later and wiser, Anaconda is again an afterthought on the minds of most but is hell-bent on changing that narrative.
Led by seniors Braxton Hill and Trent Mikalatos, the Copperheads are playing their best basketball of the season. Coming off a 37-point waxing of Loyola in the Western B challenge game, an air of comfort and relaxation has washed over the team.
“We are much more relaxed, last year we got rattled up a lot and let the environment get to us,” said Hill, who comes in leading the team at over 25 ppg this season. “We are treating this weekend just like we did our past four games.”
And it’s more than the double-double performances of Hill and Mikalatos that have led the team to this point. Junior Zeke Buck, sophomore Michale Galle and freshman Braedon Sawyer have been lights out from behind the arc while sophomore Kylar Gochanour and junior Riley Cobban have filled in the cracks defensively. During the last three games in the Western B tournament, Anaconda hasn’t made less than seven treys and overall they dropped 27 from downtown over four games coupled with a stifling defense that has shut down opponents.
Returning to the state tournament has been the biggest obstacle. The second-biggest streak has now been wiped out in terms of team droughts, becoming the first Copperhead team to make back-to-back state tournaments since 1974-75/75-76. The next is that elusive state championship – the last of which was won in 1948.
The road to the championship is eerily similar to last year for the Copperheads. The first round they take on the No. 2-seed out of the south but instead of Whitehall the ‘Heads will face Lodge Grass in their first ever meeting against the Indians. With a win, Shelby, the No. 1-seed out of the north, is a possible semifinal matchup once again. Anaconda knocked off Shelby 68-64 in overtime to advance to the 2017 title game.
However, the Copperheads aren’t looking too far into the future even if their goals are clear.
“We want to take it one game at a time and play harder and more physical than our opponent,” Hill said. “We are hungry to get back where we left off last season.”
The trek begins at 8 p.m. tonight at Dahlberg Arena, which unlike last year in Billings is a home court advantage for the Copperheads. When the Copperhead girls were in the midst of back-to-back state championship runs in Hamilton and Butte, the fans packed Dale Berry Court and the Civic Center to the rafters. Expect nothing less on the campus of University of Montana, where the capacity is listed at just shy of 7,500.
Hill is no stranger to the court having watched his sister Torry light up the scoreboard during her four-year career for the Lady Griz and you can bet Mikalatos, a life-long Griz fan, will be anxiously awaiting the spotlight standing on the logo at half court.
If you cannot make the trip to Missoula, you can follow live play-by-play on http://copperheadcountry.airtime.pro or with a live video stream provided by the NFHS network at NFHS.com.