Finishing the regular season with just five losses would be an encouraging factor for any team heading into postseason play. Having to face the team that dealt you two of those losses in the second round of said postseason? Perhaps not so encouraging.
But the Verona Wildcats seemed to take it as extra incentive in last Thursday's district semifinal against Billings, a team that was successful in both regular season meetings, 72-69 and 57-52.
The battle of the Wildcats got off to a quick start as Billings opened scoring with a trey on its first possession, but Verona's Caleb Hillhouse would match it, setting the tone for the game early. The teams were neck and neck through the first eight minutes, destined to be tied at the end of the first period, but a half-court banked shot at the buzzer put Billings ahead 15-12 instead.
Verona grabbed the lead for itself early in the second and held on for most of the period, but Billings kept it close and eventually took advantage of some sloppy play by Verona late in the half to take a 30-26 lead to the locker room.
Both offenses dried up in the third quarter, as Verona only managed two field goals and seven points total but still outscored Billings by two to cut the deficit to 35-33.
A steal and layup by freshman Jaiden Carrasquillo tied the game for Verona 15 seconds into the fourth quarter. Two minutes later Carrasquillo drained a trey to grab the momentum and the lead for Verona.
From there, the second-seeded Wildcats did what they couldn't in the first two meetings between the teams and closed out the game strong. In the end, Brad Stewart's boys held off their fellow Wildcats for a 10-point win, the biggest margin of victory between the teams this season.
Hillhouse led the Verona offense with 17 points, followed by a 13-point effort by Eddie Gutierrez. Kolton Pinkly finished with nine, while Carrasquillo added eight. Austin Valdez and Anthony Martinez contributed four points each.
With the win, the Wildcats went on to face fourth-seed and host team Marionville the following night.