GREAT FALLS — After three consecutive 9 a.m. games and a clash with a team that crushed them 58-29 on the first day of the tournament, you could not have blamed the Columbia Falls Wildkats for coming up short on Saturday afternoon at Four Seasons Arena.
But coming up short is not in the DNA of this Wildkats team.
The Wildkats survived an overtime nail-biter against the Laurel Locomotives, winning 46-44 to take third place at the Class A state girls basketball tournament for the second straight year.
“X’s and O’s on offense and defense are important, but boy, when it gets down to a game like that, it’s about heart, it’s about desire,” Columbia Falls coach Cary Finberg said.
“And that’s why it was such a special game. Both teams were going at each other hard, and we were fortunate to make one more play than they did, and that was the difference.”
Midway through the third quarter, Columbia Falls led 36-22 and looked like it would cruise to the win. But Laurel ramped up the pressure, forcing Wildkat turnovers and scoring buckets in transition to go on a 19-3 run between the third and fourth quarters.
Columbia Falls overall turned the ball over 16 times after the intermission after committing just five turnovers in the first half.
With 41 seconds left in regulation, the Locomotives were up 41-39.
“Give Laurel credit for scrambling back into it … but every time they [took the lead] our kids found a way to answer,” Finberg said.
That answer came from Ryley Kehr, who knocked down a short jumper in the key to tie the game up at 41. On the other end, her block on Laurel’s game-winning attempt sent the game into overtime.
“We were all hyped up and they came back so we were a little bit worried, but we decided to keep fighting until the last minute,” Kehr said.
The teams battled back-and-forth in the first two minutes of overtime, with Aspen Cotter putting the Locomotives ahead 44-43 on a nice drive to the basket with 1:30 to go.
The Wildkats’ Josie Windauer was the star of the next pivotal sequence. Windauer’s bucket with 1:18 left gave Columbia Falls the lead, then seconds later she took an indisputable charge as Laurel tried for an answer.
“That’s Josie Windauer to a T. She is all about competing, all about doing whatever is necessary to win,” Finberg said.
“You know she’s not going to fail by not trying … I love the way she plays, I love her heart.”
Columbia Falls played strong defense to keep Laurel from scoring, but failed to convert from the free-throw line. The Wildkats were 1 of 8 in the final minute of overtime.
That gave Cotter an excellent chance to win the game for Laurel in the waning seconds, but her layup rolled off the rim and Kehr hauled in the rebound.
Kehr knocked down a free throw to make it 46-44, but it did not matter as Laurel’s desperation heave was well short.
“Both teams were extremely tired there at the end, then we have to go into overtime and play four more minutes,” Finberg said.
“I’ve coached against [Laurel] coach [Patrick] Hansen a lot of times, and his teams are always special, they’re tough to beat. I’m proud of my kids, I’m proud of the Laurel kids, and this was a fun game to be a part of.”
The wild finish came after a great start by Columbia Falls, who worked the ball inside to take a 6-0 advantage — days after Laurel jumped out to a stunning 21-0 lead over the Wildkats — and led 13-9 after one quarter.
Columbia Falls continued to pound the paint and play great defense on Laurel’s sharpshooters, and took a 25-17 lead into the locker room.
Columbia Falls was 10 of 18 on field-goal attempts in the first half and finished the game 18 of 33.
Laurel — which made its first six triples in Thursday’s contest — finished 3 of 18 behind the arc and 15 of 54 from the field.
Kehr earned a double-double in her final game for the Wildkats, scoring 11 points and grabbing 14 rebounds. Trista Cowan, also a senior, led the team in points with 16, and LaKia Hill led the team in assists with three while chipping in five points.
“Ryley and Trista, they’ve led us all year long, they did a great job leading us … and I thought LaKia Hill came and played two great games today,” Finberg said.
Columbia Falls finished the season with a school-record 25 wins, in addition to two losses.
“Now the work begins for next year, and hopefully our younger kids got a huge taste of what we need to do, and we’ll have a great offseason,” Finberg said.
Columbia Falls 13 12 11 5 5 — 46
Laurel 9 8 10 14 3 — 44
COLUMBIA FALLS – Maddie Robison 2, Savannah Ellis 5, Josie Windauer 4, Hannah Schweikert 6, Ryley Kehr 11, Madysen Hoerner 2, Trista Cowan 16.
LAUREL – Sophie Timm 2, Maeson Cotter 10, Aspen Cotter 16, Gracey Willis 4, Sammi Spitzer 6, Kaitlyn Dawes 6.
Columbia Falls 43,
Billings Central 38
GREAT FALLS — The champions from the Western and Eastern A brought plenty of energy to a 9 a.m. loser-out clash.
And it was the Wildkats (24-2 overall) eliminating the Rams (18-6) in a thriller to move on to the tournament’s final night.
“Big win for us, good win for the Western A,” Finberg said to the media after the game.
“We’re back at Saturday night, that’s where we want to be, and we’ll see what happens.”
The game was a tight, high-intensity battle. Columbia Falls never led by more than six points and Central never led by more than two.
Columbia Falls had a 33-30 lead going into the final quarter, and Kehr buried a 3 with 3:56 to go to give the Wildkats a 37-31 advantage. But the Rams kept pressing, and Solei Elletson hit a triple with 1:40 left to cut the deficit to one at 39-38.
In a pivotal sequence, Central forced a turnover on the Wildkats’ next possession, but threw the ball away on the fast break. The Rams coaches and fans insisted the ball deflected off Columbia Falls — the referees gave the Central bench a warning — but Columbia Falls got the ball back.
The Wildkats were clutch from the line in the final minute. Kehr knocked down two free throws with 45 seconds to go and Windauer went 2-for-2 with 13 seconds left to give Columbia Falls a 43-38 lead.
Central gave up its chance for a miracle by throwing ball away on its next possession, and the Wildkats dribbled it out for the win.
“Credit to the girls, we had a game plan and they executed it perfectly,” Finberg said.
“Billings Central is a good team, we talked about it before the game how big they were, and I thought we did a good job especially in the first half of rebounding and then transitioning, especially with our posts.”
Columbia Falls jumped out to an early lead as Central started ice-cold from beyond the arc, going 0 of 7 on 3-pointers in the first quarter. The Wildkats led 11-6 entering the second.
The Rams knocked down their first two 3-point attempts to begin the second quarter, part of an 8-1 run that gave Central a 14-12 lead early in the frame. But Columbia Falls held the Rams to a single point the rest of the way and quickly reclaimed the lead.
“I thought our perimeter kids did a great job knowing who their shooters were, getting to them and then helping down on the post,” Finberg said.
Hannah Schweikert hit a long jump shot from the corner and Maddie Robison buried a triple to make it 17-14 with 3:25 to go. The Wildkats went into the locker room up 19-15.
“Against a good team, you’ve got to get everybody contributing, and I thought we did that,” Finberg said.
Columbia Falls had a 23-17 lead midway through the third quarter, then the Rams went on an 11-3 run in less than two minutes, which included two 3-pointers from Elletson.
The Rams gained a 28-26 edge, but the Wildkats went on their own run to take a 33-28 lead, capped off by a Kehr triple. Central never led after that.
Central’s poor shooting performance was a key factor in the result, as the Rams finished just 5 of 23 from beyond the arc and 3 of 9 from the free-throw line. The Wildkats were 4 of 9 on 3-pointers and 13 of 22 from the charity stripe.
Kehr had a game-high 14 points, while grabbing nine boards and four steals to lead the Wildkats in those categories.
“She’s been one of the best players in the state all year and today she proved it,” Finberg said.
Trista Cowan scored five points and struggled from the field but had seven rebounds, including five offensive boards. Schweikert finished with seven points and Windauer had six.
Elletson led the Rams with 11 points. Isabelle Erickson added eight and Olivia Moten-Schell scored six and led the team in rebounds with eight.
Columbia Falls 11 8 14 10 — 43
Billings Central 6 9 15 8 — 38
COLUMBIA FALLS – Maddie Robison 3, LaKia Hill 5, Josie Windauer 6, Hannah Schweikert 7, Ryley Kehr 14, Madysen Hoerner 3, Trista Cowan 5.
BILLINGS CENTRAL – Solei Elletson 11, Chloe Paharik 5, Isabelle Erickson 8, Olivia Moten-Schell 6, Melissa Hanser 3, Julia Peterson 5.