For the Columbia Falls girls basketball team, the road to a Class A state title begins with defending state champion Billings Central.
After losing to Frenchtown in the Northwestern A divisional championship game, its first loss to a Class A school all season, Columbia Falls (17-4) had to fend off Polson in a challenge game and settled for the conference’s second seed at the state tournament, which begins today at the Butte Civic Center.
Billings Central (14-7), the top seed from the Eastern A conference, has won two of the last three state titles, but Columbia Falls isn’t exactly an underdog. The Wildkats spent most of the season ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll and three of its four losses came against Class AA foes.
“If we defend like we did at the divisional tournament, we’re going to give ourselves a chance,” Columbia Falls coach Cary Finberg said. “Offensively we hope to shoot the ball better than we did at divisionals. If we can shoot the ball anywhere near what we did during the season, that would be an improvement over what we did at divisionals.”
In Billings Central, Columbia Falls will be up against an experienced opponent with three starters from last year’s title-winning team. Junior guard Allie Lucas is Class A’s fourth leading scorer with 16.9 points per game and 5-foot-10 junior forward Justyn Juhl averages 12.5 points. The two combined for 50 points in Billings Central’s win over Hardin in the Eastern A divisional title game.
“I know they’ve got some very good guards,” Finberg said of Billings Central. “They like to press the ball. They’ll pick you up and get after you.”
Columbia Falls is led by 6-0 junior center Haley Belgarde, who averages 15.2 points, sixth best in Class A. Sophomore 5-11 forward Winter Kemppainen and senior 5-9 guard Hope Burlage average 9 and 8.5 points, respectively.
“Our strength is obviously our inside game, so it’s going to be a battle of wills as far as what type of game is played,” Finberg said. “If we can take care of the basketball and be confident on the perimeter, I think we have the advantage, but if we let their guards dictate the tempo of the game then they have the advantage.”
Columbia Falls last qualified for the state tournament in 2011 and Finberg said only Burlage played a signficant role on that team. Last season, Finberg’s first as girls coach, the Wildkats finished third at the Northwestern A divisional tournament.
“They worked extremely hard and we knew coming into this year that we were going to be a lot better team,” Finberg said.
If Columbia Falls gets past Billings Central, it will play the winner between Southwestern A top seed Butte Central (16-4) and Central A second seed Browning (11-10) in the semifinals. Butte Central won the 2011 state title and will have home-court advantage, but the Maroons might be without leading scorer Danee Leary, who averages 13.5 points. Bobby Oler of KXLF reported on Twitter that Leary suffered a concussion at the Southwestern A divisional tournament.
Finberg identified Frenchtown (11-9) as the top contender in the other half of the bracket. Columbia Falls beat Frenchtown twice during the regular season by a combined six points before losing 49-37 in the Northwestern A divisional title game.
“I’ve seen a lot of teams this year and Frenchtown is as good as any team I’ve seen,” Finberg said.
“I thought we actually played better overall in our loss to Frenchtown than we did in the two wins. Our shooting is just what cost us on that particular night.”
Columbia Falls tips off against Billings Central today at 12:30 p.m.
Class A girls state tournament
Billings Central (14-7) vs. Columbia Falls (17-4), 12:30 p.m.
Butte Central (16-4) vs. Browning (11-10), 2 p.m.
Frenchtown (11-9) vs. Laurel (16-6), 6:30 p.m.
Havre (13-7) vs. Stevensville (12-9), 8 p.m.