The Columbia Falls boys and girls enter the Northwestern A divisional basketball tournament as teams to beat, but neither has an easy road to a divisional title.
The boys (7-1 Northwestern A, 13-5 overall) were tested during the regular season against second-seeded Whitefish (6-2, 11-7), which split the season series with the Wildcats, and third-seeded Frenchtown (5-3, 9-9), which Columbia Falls beat by five points in December. The girls (8-0, 15-3), survived a pair of close games against second-seeded Frenchtown (6-2, 14-4), winning by a combined six points to maintain its unblemished conference record.
“I think the exciting thing is how evenly matched a lot of these teams are,” Whitefish boys coach Mark Casazza said. “I think a lot of games are going to come right down to the wire.”
The tournament tips off today in Ronan with a pair of play-in games. The Libby boys (1-7, 7-11) play Polson (1-7, 6-12) at 6 p.m. and the Whitefish girls (1-7, 1-17) take on Libby (1-7, 3-15) at 8 p.m. The winners of the play-in games will face Columbia Falls on Friday. The top two boys and girls teams advance to the state tournament.
“There’s really no secrets at this point,” said Cary Finberg, who coaches Columbia Falls’ boys and girls teams. “Everybody knows the other teams. You want to make sure you’re playing confident basketball and peaking at the right time.”
Winners of four straight divisional titles, the Columbia Falls boys are used to playing with a target on their backs, but being the top seed is uncharted water for the girls.
“The boys know the routine,” Finberg said. “They should be playing with a lot of confidence right now.
“The girls, this is new territory for this crew, but they’re playing their best basketball of the year as well.”
The boys are led by a trio of double-digit scorers in Luke Kazlauskas (15.1 points per game), Jared Trinastich (11.6) and Alex Presnell (11.2).
“They pressure the ball all the time,” Casazza said of Columbia Falls. “They try to take you out of your offensive rhythm and they do a great job of it. They’re physical on both ends of the floor, they do a great job of getting to the foul line and they shoot well from the charity stripe.”
The Whitefish boys could be the biggest challenger to Columbia Falls’ divisional title streak, but Casazza said he is focused on the Bulldogs’ first-round game against Frenchtown, which tips off Friday at 4 p.m.
“The first thing we need to focus on is our Friday night game,” Casazza said. “Frenchtown, they’re pretty good. The thing that’s going to be fun in that game is it’s going to be speed on speed. We’re two of the fastest teams in the conference. Both teams like to push the ball up the floor.”
Whitefish leads the conference in field goal percentage (43.6 percent) and three-point percentage (32.4) and has a pair of double-digit scorers in Cooper Olson (12.7) and Logan Harwood (11.6).
Casazza identified Polson as a dark horse contender. While the Pirates won just one conference game all season, they won three of their last five games. Both losses during that stretch were to Columbia Falls.
Frenchtown is the leading contender alongside Columbia Falls in the girls’ bracket. Led by center Vanessa Stavish, the third-leading scorer in Class A with 17.7 points per game, the Broncs are riding a five-game winning streak. Columbia Falls also has a high-scoring center in Haley Belgarde, who averages 15.3 points, and the Wildkats are unbeaten against Class A opponents.
“If we play like we’re capable, we feel like we can take care of business, but anything can happen in tournament play,” Finberg said.
Third-seeded Polson (4-4, 7-11) will have to finish ahead of Columbia Falls or Frenchtown to secure a state tournament berth, but coach Randy Kelley believes his girls are capable.
“We’ve got to play some good defense, take care of the ball and do the little things that have gotten away from us at times,” he said. “We’ve had games where we played three good periods but not a complete game. If we play a full game, I think we’ve got a legitimate shot to give them a challenge.”
While both Columbia Falls and Frenchtown each have a game-changing center, Kelley said both teams have a strong supporting cast that makes them tough to beat.
“Both of those teams have plenty of role players that know their roles, take care of the ball and play defense,” he said. “Frenchtown might be a little more physical. Columbia Falls, they play pretty smart on both ends of the floor.”
Polson got off to a rocky start with six straight losses, but improved as the season wore on and finished with three wins in its last four games. Forward Heidi Rausch leads the Pirates with 11.4 points per game while guard Anna DiGiallonardo averages 8.4.
6 p.m. — Libby (7-11) vs. Polson (6-12)
8 p.m. — Whitefish (1-17) vs. Libby (3-15)
2 p.m. — Columbia Falls (13-5) vs. Libby/Polson winner
4 p.m. — Whitefish (11-7) vs. Frenchtown (9-9)
6 p.m. — Columbia Falls (15-3) vs. Whitefish/Libby winner
8 p.m. — Frenchtown (14-4) vs. Polson (7-11)
Sharpshooting Thompson leads Laurel into Eastern A tournament
Without fail, the Eastern A tournament is a battle every year.
But Brett Thompson and the Laurel Locomotives are battle-tested, which makes them a favorite to win their third consecutive division championship when the tournament tips off Thursday at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark.
Thompson, a sharpshooting senior guard, played a huge role in Laurel’s run to a perfect 10-0 record in the Eastern A and a 17-1 mark overall. With Thompson as their floor general, the Locomotives were the top-ranked team in Class A all season.
“Brett’s really turned into a nice basketball player. He’s put a lot of time in the last couple years,” said Laurel coach Pat Hansen, who’s seen a bunch of quality players come through his program.
“He’s definitely a gamer. He wants the ball in his hands, whether it’s good or bad. The leadership part, I think he’s done a really good job of developing from his junior year to his senior year.”
Thompson averages 14.7 points per game, and scored in double figures in all but three games during the season.
But Thompson is perhaps most valuable late in games, where he made countless clutch plays to keep Laurel undefeated until their last outing of the regular season -- a double-overtime loss at Class AA Billings Skyview last weekend.
Specifically, Thompson hit a buzzer-beating shot earlier in the year that stunned Skyview in Laurel, and also made a 3-pointer with a hand in his face to force overtime in a comeback win at Columbus.
On another occasion in Glendive, Thompson alertly kicked the ball to teammate Taylor Maida while being triple-teamed as the seconds ticked away in overtime, and Maida made the winning shot.
The Locomotives have won with offense, defense and good fortune this season. Thompson’s been at the center of it all.
“We have a lot of fight in us,” said Thompson, who works hard without the ball to find open shots. “We can get down by 15 or 20 to Columbus and still manage to come back and win that game.
“We may not be the biggest team on the court -- maybe we’re a little undersized -- but we make sure teams know we’re there to battle. And we’re going to battle them start to finish.”
Laurel has won three boys basketball championships in its history, most recently in 2010.
Thompson was a freshman that year, and remembers watching intently as the Locomotives beat Polson for the title at the Butte Civic Center.
“I was too small to be in the student section. I couldn’t see over everyone,” said Thompson, who now stands 6-foot-1. “So I ended up going up into the nosebleeds and watching it all unfold. I remember Jake McKinney throwing his shoe and getting a technical foul. I buried my face in my hands thinking, ‘This can’t be happening.’ ”
“But after that state championship, it was unbelievable. I didn’t even play and I’ve never felt a feeling like that before. It’s something that I’d like to feel before I graduate.”
First, though, comes the Eastern A tournament. Laurel is gunning for its third consecutive tourney title.
The top-seeded Locomotives have a first-round bye, and will play either Miles City (5-13, 3-7 Eastern A) or Sidney (5-13, 2-8) in the semifinals on Friday.
“We’re going to have to show up,” Thompson said. “We come into every game wanting to win. We don’t have any thought of losing, even in the back of our minds. Winning has come to be an expectation here at Laurel.”
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Central A Basketball: Teams gather at CMR for combined event
DeeJay Lazy Boy and the Browning Indians are favored to win a second straight boys' championship at the Central A Divisional tournament. TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO
The Browning Indians are the host team for the Central A combined basketball tournament that starts today at CMR Fieldhouse.
And that’s just fine with Browning administrator Book St. Goddard, who figures the cozy confines of the fieldhouse are a plus for everybody.
“It’s cool to play in that gym,” said St. Goddard, the tournament director. “The players like it and the fans like it. We get pretty decent crowds and it always seems like everybody is right on top of the action.
“We’ve got no complaints.”
The is the second year in a row the tournament is at CMR. The event, which features five-team brackets for both boys and girls, gets started tonight at 6:30 with a girls’ game matching Lewistown and Livingston.
Tonight at 8, a boys’ game featuring Havre and Livingston will take place. There are four semifinal games slated Friday, and the championship contests are Saturday night.
Havre is the defending Central A champion in the girls, and the Blue Ponies are favored to repeat. But not by much.
“I think the girls’ games will be be close,” said St. Goddard. “Really Havre, Belgrade and Browning all have a shot.”
In the boys’ tourney, defending champion Browning is a solid favorite. The Indians of first-year coach Mark Magee are led by senior guard DeeJay Lazy Boy (15 ppg). Jalen Croff and Dan Hall are averaging close to double figures for the 16-2 Indians, ranked third among Class A teams.
Browning takes on the winner of tonight’s first-round game Friday night at 8. The other semifinal boys’ game features Belgrade and Lewistown.
Dylan Stenseth (12 ppg) is Lewistown’s top offensive threat, while Belgrade’s balanced attack is led by Trevor Mahn and Brandon Karnath.
Freshman Dane Warp (15 ppg) leads the Havre attack, while Livingston has one of the better players in the league in senior Marcus Payne (20 ppg).
The Havre girls are 11-7 overall, with several of those setbacks to Great Falls High and C.M. Russell High squads. The Blue Ponies of coach Dustin Kraske can depend on veteran guards Peyton Filius (12.5 ppg) and Brandy Lambourne (9.6 ppg).
CLICK ON THE FOLLOWING LINK TO VIEW A NUMBER OF ARTICLES DEALING WITH SW 'A' CONFERENCE TEAMS.