By Tyler Thompson (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
BILLINGS — It was senior night Thursday evening at Billings High School.
But the spoils went to the visiting Blue Eye Lady Bulldogs (18-6, 7-0), who finished off an unbeaten run through the SWCL in their 72-33 rout of the host Lady Wildcats.
For head coach Ken Elfrink, his Bulldogs can now mark off one of their many preseason goals — winning the conference.
“It means a lot. It has been our goal for the last two or three years. It is pretty special,” said Elfrink.
The SWCL championship is a coveted right as it is, but having teams moving out and coming in this season makes the accomplishment that much sweeter, given the new pool of talent.
“We have a brand new conference, which was aligned this year. With Clever and Forsyth moving out, and Purdy and Southwest moving in, we knew we would probably be the favorites this year,” said Elfrink. “We had a target on our back, and the girls came out and did what they needed to do.”
What they needed to do was set the tempo with quick outlets, precision passing, and solid ball movement in and around the paint, which they did, as the Bulldogs quickly orchestrated a 9-2 run to open up regulation.
From there, it was pick your poison as to whom to defend, as senior Ayshia Bettlach and company went to work.
The SWCL champions closed out the opening quarter on a 13-5 run to increase its lead to 22-7.
Blue Eye — after forcing 11 first-half turnovers — capitalized on the added offensive possessions — as Bettlach’s eight points led all scorers at half, when the ‘Dogs extended the lead to 41-15 at intermission, as Bettlach’s 3-pointer with 1.9 seconds remaining bounced inside the rim prior to trickling through the net.
“Yeah, I knew that I had one second, that I could at least take one dribble,” Bettlach said of her buzzer-beating heave from beyond the left wing as time expired.
Four Blue Eye players finished with double-digit scoring, and Bettlach said having that type of composure and leadership brings added confidence to the hardwood.
“I know that we have a lot of options, so it really doesn’t matter who scores. If I am not on one night, I know that Kenedi [Larson], Kohnnar [Patton] is on, Taylor [Arnold] is on,” said Bettlach.
The four accounted for 74-percent of the team’s offense.
With the Class 2 District 10 Tournament set to commence Saturday, and the Bulldogs drawing top-seed honors, the intensity with which they exhibited from the first whistle — simply comments on the collective development that has taken shape throughout the winter.
Blue Eye doesn’t possess much size, which Elfrink alluded to after the game, but the leadership and sharp-shooting capabilities are two factors that keyed an 18-7 record.
“It says a lot about them,” said Elfrink. “We have a good group. We have a senior-laden team. Those seniors, you can just see it as they grow, maturity-wise. So far, we’ve gone through a lot, just with injuries. Offensively, we got clicking there.”
With seven seniors on the team, the points will come, but it was the defensive production that caught Elfrink’s eyes on this night.
The Bulldogs counted on their half-court press in order to get Billings out of its offensive rhythm — which simply played into the visitor’s game plan.
“Yeah, we have done that quite a bit all year,” Elfrink said of the high-octane defense, which yielded added possessions on the offensive end. “We can come out and have a bad shooting night, shoot 25, 30 percent. But, if we are able to create some extra opportunities — if we get an added 20 opportunities because of our defense, we think we can win by doing that. Now, if we shoot it well, I think we can play with just about anybody.”
Blue Eye: Larson-18; Patton-13; Arnold-11; Bettlach-11; Avery Arnold-7; Riley Arnold-7; Maddie Box-5.
Billings: Grace Vesci-9; Bailey Groves-6; Hanna Verch-5; Taylor Painter-5; Grace Seager-4; Liz Gearing-4