Three points was the difference between the Hamilton girls' basketball team capturing the Southwest A's No. 2 seed — and a first-round bye at the district tournament in Butte starting Thursday — or the No. 4 seed.

Yes, Dillon's 28-25 win against Hamilton last Saturday, effectively, had that much significance. That just goes to show how close the Southwest A is this season.

"It's really weird. Everyone is beating each other and everyone is really about the same with each other points-wise," Hamilton senior guard Sophia Doyle at a Wednesday practice ahead of the Broncs trip to Butte Thursday. "We split with so many teams, and if we lose it's just by a few points."

What's even more wild, is that if Stevensville (2-8 in conference, 5-13 overall) hadn't beat Frenchtown (4-6, 8-10) by two, 46-44, on Friday, Hamilton would have fallen to the fifth seed. Literally two possessions between two games made the difference between the Broncs being a favorite to appear at the divisional tournament next week on their home court versus, technically, a seeded long shot. 

Having a top-two seed slip away isn't cause for frustration in the Bronc locker room, though. It's inspiration. The Hamilton girls know the tournament Thursday through Saturday is wide open.

And they, very well, could be the dark horse.

To be one of the top four teams that emerge from the bracket at Butte Central's Maroon Activities Center, Hamilton has to find just a little more offense. The Broncs (5-5, 10-8) are 8-3 when they score more than 33 points. 

That's promising, but it also means seven times this season Hamilton has failed to meat that threshold. Sometimes it's turnovers that get the best of them. Sometimes the ball just doesn't go in the hoop. Either way, Doyle says they know it's time to put it all together.

"Knowing that there's not really a dominant team gives us a lot of confidence. We know we can play with these guys and we can win," Doyle said. "If we just clean up a few things, we can come out on top."

On the other side of the coin, Hamilton has been stingy on defense. While they scored just 25 points against Dillon on Saturday, it's unfair to ignore that the Broncs allowed just 28. Ryter has been a force in the middle with 18 blocks this season, according to mthighschoolstats.com. Hamilton's also forced 152 steals, too.

"Coach Albert just pushes us to talk, get gritty and we've been getting really scrappy," said Ryter, who nearly averages a double double in points and rebounds (9.5 ppg, 9 rpg) to lead Hamilton in those categories. 

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The key, coach Albert said, is just a bit of confidence.

"We always say if we can 40, we can beat anybody in our conference," Albert said. "It's a confidence level thing. There's not a lot of experience on our team, but we have really good kids. If we can just build on the good character we have, have some confidence and not be afraid to lose or afraid to disappoint people. 

"Once we get there, play with a little bit of joy and not let the fear of losing take us away from the joy of playing, we're going to be pretty good."

Hamilton has the pedigree to pull off a district tournament run, too. Albert's Broncs joined Butte Central as the Southwest A's representatives at the state tournament last season.

Around the conference, coaches know just how wide open the Southwest A is. Three games separated first place from fourth and both second-place Butte Central (6-4, 7-11) and third-place Dillon (5-5, 5-13) have losing overall records. Stevensville showed that it could be rising at the right time, too, with it's season finale win over Frenchtown.

Corvallis — Hamilton's rival by proximity, and the conference's No. 1 seed at district — is celebrating its first-ever Southwest A regular season title.

"Corvallis proved themselves, at 8-2 they're really solid and physically they're imposing, honestly," coach Albert said. "They've got some strength, but we've played them tough. Dillon played them tough. They've lost to Butte Central (once), who we beat twice. A lot of it's just matchups."

And Corvallis coach Andy Knapp said after his team's win Saturday against Butte Central that his Blue Devils (8-2, 12-6) are going to have to come to play. Corvallis will play the winner of Thursday's matchup between Hamilton and Frenchtown on Friday.

"Our girls are feeling good about how they're playing, but the know they have a job to do. There's not an easy game ahead of us," Knapp said Saturday. "Every team in our conference has the potential to go get something done."

Nothing like a wide open horse race.

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