By COLIN GAISER
The Daily Inter Lake
GREAT FALLS — It was a nightmare beginning to the Class A state tournament for the Columbia Falls girls basketball team.
The Wildkats fell behind 21-0 on their way to a 58-29 loss to Laurel in first-round action on Thursday morning at Four Seasons Arena.
“We can make excuses all you want … But the reality of the situation is we weren’t ready and they were and they handed it to us,” Columbia Falls coach Cary Finberg said.
The Locomotives (17-6 overall) took command early and stifled the Wildkats (22-2) with a high-energy, man defense that forced the Wildkats into uncharacteristic turnovers. Columbia Falls had 14 turnovers in the first half and 30 in the game.
Laurel scored 22 points off turnovers in the first half alone and finished with 38.
The Wildkats finally got a bucket with 1:30 left in the first quarter as Trista Cowan found some rare space down low for an easy lay-up.
Meanwhile, Laurel — the No. 4 seed out of the Eastern A and regular-season Eastern A champions — torched Columbia Falls from behind the arc. The Locomotives buried their first five 3-point attempts and finished 6 of 9 on triples in the first half.
“Our defense was a little hesitant. Not real aggressive,” Finberg said.
“They were very aggressive offensively and defensively. They were physical with us. The minute they hit that first shot, it seemed like we lost any aggression. And the more aggressive teams are generally going to win, and that’s what happened.”
The Wildkats stemmed the bleeding in the second quarter — Ryley Kehr displayed her physicality with some nice drives to the basket and team tightened up on defense and forced some turnovers — but still went into halftime down 33-11.
The Locomotives did not stop chugging in the second half, matching the Wildkats’ up-tempo play on both sides of the court. They did not make another 3-pointer in the game, but continued to capitalize on Columbia Falls’ turnovers.
Columbia Falls had consecutive baskets in transition to go on a quick run that made it 37-18 in the third quarter, and early in the final quarter Savannah Ellis had an offensive rebound and put-back that made it 42-24. But that was as close as the Wildkats would get.
“They played a great game, they were ready to go. A lot of it falls on me, our kids were not ready to go,” Finberg said.
Laurel’s great shooting performance extended to the charity stripe, where it knocked down 16 of 21 free throws. Columbia Falls was 11 of 19.
Cowan paced the Wildkats in points with eight, Josie Windauer added seven and Kehr had five. Cowan also grabbed seven boards to lead the team.
The Locomotives had 10 players on the score sheet. Mya Hansen had a team-high 12 points and Maeson Cotter and Aspen Cotter each chipped in nine. Aspen Cotter made five of the team’s 16 steals.
The Wildkats were in a similar position last year. They lost to Hardin 60-34 in the first round, but won their next three games and claimed third place.
“[We need to] show up. Play like we’ve played all year. Don’t play like we did today,” Finberg said.
The Wildkats face a loser-out battle with Libby this morning at 9 a.m. Columbia Falls slipped by the Loggers 37-33 in the Western A semifinals on Feb. 22.
Columbia Falls 2 9 11 7 — 29
Laurel 23 10 9 16 — 58
COLUMBIA FALLS – Maddie Robison 4, Savannah Ellis 2, Josie Windauer 7, Hannah Schweikert 1, Ryley Kehr 5, Madysen Hoerner 2, Trista Cowan 8.
LAUREL – Mya Hansen 12, Maeson Cotter 9, Grace Timm 4, Aspen Cotter 9, Gracey Willis 2, Sammi Spitzer 5, Kolby Gibbs 4, Morgan Maack 4, Riley Champman 4, Kaitlyn Dawes 5.
Havre 62, Libby 28
GREAT FALLS — The Loggers kept it close for two quarters, but the Blue Ponies outscored Libby 37-8 in the second half for a commanding victory in Class A state tournament first-round action.
Libby (17-10) came out with an impressive first-half performance. The Loggers played an aggressive half-court defense that forced the Blue Ponies (21-1) into taking difficult, contested shots.
“I think we had good energy. Executed well. But we were mentally and physically fresh, that was the biggest thing,” Libby coach Wally Winslow said.
“You have to play defense, you have to rebound like crazy, and you can’t turn it over. And in the first half we did a good job with that.”
The Loggers built a 13-8 lead over the Blue Ponies with 2:15 with go in the first quarter. Then Havre — which won 44 consecutive games before falling to Billings Central in the Eastern A championship — went on a 13-0 run between the first and second quarters to take a 21-13 lead.
Libby did not back down.
Jayden Winslow knocked down a triple to end Havre’s run, and finished 4 of 8 on 3-pointers in the half to help the team go into the locker room down 25-20.
But in the second half, the Blue Ponies came out like a team primed to start another long winning streak.
“Mental fatigue and physical fatigue came in. And that’s the way coach [Dustin] Kraske has designed that team, to beat you down over the course of the full 32 minutes,” Winslow said.
“Our guards can handle that kind of thing for a while, but eventually they make a mistake, one mistake leads to another … and the game starts getting out of touch real quick.”
Havre never let up on its relentless full-court pressure and Libby struggled to handle it. The Loggers coughed the ball up 12 times in the second half, nine of those turnovers on Havre steals.
The faster tempo helped the Blue Ponies put the game away early in the second half. Kyndall Keller knocked down a rare triple for Havre and the team had four fast-break points to go on a quick 7-0 run in the opening minutes.
Winslow said his team needs to find a way to stop those types of runs.
“We can defend in the half-court with anybody. I believe our girls can do that. I think we can execute our offense in the half-court with anybody,” he said.
“But in full-court situations, especially over the course of an entire game, that will be our biggest challenge.”
Libby struggled to come up with points and was just 2 of 13 from the field in the second half.
The Loggers were down 43-27 after the third quarter, and Havre turned the game into a blowout in the fourth quarter with a barrage of fast-break points. The Blue Ponies finished with 27 points off turnovers.
Havre outscored Libby 19-1 in the final frame, the Loggers’ lone point coming from an Elise Erickson free throw with 1:37 left in the game.
Despite the difficult second half, Winslow was encouraged by much of what he saw from his team on Thursday morning.
“They believe in themselves; they think that they can play with everybody. And for given chunks of time, we can. We were able to show that today with Havre,” he said.
“We just need to further sustain it, and in the postseason the harder that becomes because the teams get better and better.”
Jayden Winslow finished with 14 points to pace the Loggers. McKenzie Proffitt grabbed nine boards to lead the team in rebounds.
The Blue Ponies had three players in double digits. Keller led the team with 14 points, and Kadia Miller and Sadie Filius each chipped in 10. Filius also had seven steals.
Libby goes up against Columbia Falls in loser-out action at 9 a.m. today.
“Coach [Cary] Finberg will have them ready, I know they weren’t happy with their performance today. I’m sure Columbia Falls will be a little irritated by their situation and I’m sure they’ll be more than ready to play tomorrow,” Winslow said.
Libby 13 7 7 1 — 28
Havre 14 11 18 19 — 62
LIBBY – Jayden Winslow 14, McKenzie Proffitt 4, Sammee Bradeen 3, Taylor Holm 2, Emma Gruber 2, Alli Collins 2, Elise Erickson 1.
HAVRE – Kyndall Keller 14, Kadia Miller 10, Sadie Filius 10, Britton Paulson 7, Katie Wirtzberger 6, Lauren Kato 5, Kylie Walker 4, Jessa Chvilicek 2, Sam Oliver 2, Loy Waid 2.
At Four Seasons Arena in Great Falls
9 a.m. — Columbia Falls vs. Libby
10:30 a.m. — Browning vs. Butte Central
3:30 p.m. — Laurel vs. Havre
5 p.m. — Hardin vs. Billings Central