The Western A divisional basketball tournament did not go exactly as planned for the Columbia Falls girls. Their head coach, Cary Finberg, chalked it up as a win anyway.
First, the veteran coach considers any postseason tournament experience beneficial for his freshman- and sophomore-laden team.
Second, the divisional tournament served as a “measuring stick” for Columbia Falls, showing the Wildkats areas where they can still improve.
Most importantly, Columbia Falls accomplished its ultimate goal in the divisional despite competing in the tournament without a full practice of preparation due to the sickness ravaging the team at the time.
“Right after the state championship last year, our goal was to get back to the state tournament and give ourselves a chance to defend our title,” Finberg said. “These girls have accomplished that.”
Now, the goal shifts.
With its spot in the Class A state tournament secure, the Wildkats, the No. 3 seed out of the Western division, can now fully focus on chasing a second consecutive state championship.
That chase begins at 6:30 p.m. today at the Four Seasons Arena in Great Falls with a matchup against Hardin, the Eastern division’s No. 2 seed and the team Columbia Falls defeated in the state title game a year ago.
“They’ve got two starters back; we’ve got one,” Finberg said. “Both teams are different teams, but they’re kind of going in with the same kind of game plan, I would assume. (Hardin is) going to press and get after us.”
The Wildkats fully embraced the week-long reprieve between the divisional and state tournaments.
“It was very beneficial for us this year,” Finberg said.
“The week off gave us a chance to work out some things.
“It gave us a chance to get healthy. Now, we feel we’re at full strength.”
It’s a welcome feeling for Columbia Falls, which was anything but at season’s end.
The Wildkats dropped three of four games at one point — losses to Browning in the regular-season finale and Northwest A conference championship game and a loss to Butte Central in the opening round of the divisional tournament.
The defeat versus Butte Central put the Wildkats’ backs against the wall, forcing them to win back-to-back, loser-out contests to even qualify for the state tournament. They did just that, besting Ronan and Dillon in elimination games before downing Hamilton in the consolation final.
“With so many new players and so many new kids, the district tournament and the divisional tournament for this team has been a tremendous experience,” Finberg said.
“Every time they go through those big games, it’s just a plus for this team.”
A win over Hardin would give Columbia Falls another shot at top-seeded Butte Central, assuming it can take care of Glendive in the first round, in the state semifinals.
But that is far from the Wildkats’ minds right now.
“Our focus right now,” Finberg said, “is taking care of Hardin.”