COLUMBIA FALLS — Ryley Kehr nailed the game-winning 3-pointer, Trista Cowan scored 21 points and Columbia Falls squeaked by Browning 57-55 in a Northwest A girls basketball barnburner on Saturday at Columbia Falls High School.
With under a minute to go in the back-and-forth final quarter, the Wildkats (17-1 overall, 9-1 conference) were down 55-53 and searching for an open look. The team’s patience paid off when Kehr calmly buried a shot from beyond the arc with 53 seconds remaining, putting the Wildkats up 56-55.
The Indians (14-4, 9-1) lost the ball out of bounds on the next possession, and Madysen Hoerner hit 1 of 2 free throws with 10 seconds left to give the Wildkats a 57-55 advantage. Browning then lost possession of the ball before it could manage a final shot, and the buzzer went off during the ensuing scramble.
The result puts Browning and Columbia Falls in a tie atop the Northwest A standings. But since Browning beat the Wildkats by three points on Jan. 17 — a 70-67 overtime victory in Browning — and Columbia Falls won on Saturday by just two points, the Indians claim the regular-season championship and No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.
Columbia Falls coach Cary Finberg said he was not bothered by coming up short in a bid for the regular-season title.
“It would have been nice to win the conference championship, but in the big picture it doesn’t mean anything. Next week is more important than the conference,” Finberg said.
In the first quarter, it looked like the Wildkats would cruise to a convincing victory. The team was getting the better of a fast-paced game, finding Cowan inside for easy points in the paint — she scored 10 in the frame — and forcing turnovers for fast-break baskets.
At one point, Columbia Falls had a 26-9 lead. But Browning flipped the script in the second and third quarters.
The shots stopped falling for the Wildkats in the second quarter, while the Indians tightened up their defense and got up the court for easy points in transition.
“Sometimes when you get a big lead you exhale a little bit and other team is fighting and clawing to try and get back in it,” Finberg said.
“If you don’t match the intensity of the team that’s behind, they’re going to come back on you.”
Browning also found its stroke from beyond the arc, burying three 3-pointers in the frame, and trimmed its deficit to 35-31 going into halftime.
The offensive struggles for Columbia Falls continued in the third quarter, and Browning capitalized. Tatum Running Crane’s corner 3 with 3:30 to go in the third gave the Indians their first lead of the game at 39-37.
Meanwhile, the Wildkats struggled from the free-throw line, going 3 of 9 in the quarter and 12 of 29 in the game.
The Indians outscored the Wildkats 32-14 in the second and third quarters.
But Columbia Falls found its rhythm on offense again to set up a wild final quarter. Cowan reclaimed the lead for the Wildkats at 45-43 with an aggressive put-back and old-fashioned 3-pointer off an offensive rebound early in the frame.
Finberg said his team’s ball movement in the fourth quarter helped it claw back into the game.
“Second and third quarters I think we were dribbling a little too much, we weren’t moving the ball like we needed to. We kind of settled in there and started moving the ball and sharing the ball,” he said.
On the other side of the ball, Finberg said the team settled into a half-court defense that limited Browning’s easy looks.
“I’m stubborn sometimes and I press maybe a little long, a little longer than I should have,” he added.
The Wildkats had the largest lead of the quarter at 53-50, but Browning’s Veronica Reed buried a 3 with 2:07 to go and Taylor Jordan scored in the paint on the next possession to give the Indians a 55-53 edge and set up the dramatic finish.
“We wanted to play well and we did that … obviously getting the win is big for us, and the way we did it, found a way to battle back in the fourth quarter,” Finberg said.
“We’re going to play these guys again, so we need to learn from our mistakes and what we did well.”
Kehr’s game-clinching 3 gave her 14 points, while Lakia Hill added nine for the Wildkats.
Ten players scored for the Indians, though none hit double-digits. Reed and Jordan led the team with nine each.
Next up for both Columbia Falls and Browning is the Northwest A conference tournament, which begins on Thursday at Whitefish High School.
Browning 11 20 12 12 – 55
Columbia Falls 26 9 5 17 – 57
BROWNING – Cha’slin Kipp 2, Lacie Goss 4, Veronica Reed 9, Kelsey Mad Plume 5, Caelin Guardipee 2, Danaiya Polk 6, Walker Running Crane 7, Dulci Skunkcap 8, Taylor Jordan 9, Tatum Running Crane 3.
COLUMBIA FALLS – Maddie Robison 1, Savannah Ellis 2, Lakia Hill 9, Josie Windauer 5, Ryley Kehr 14, Madysen Hoerner 5, Trista Cowan 21.