It was business as usual for Laurel in the first round of the State A boys basketball tournament.
The hot-shooting Locomotives built a huge fourth-quarter lead, but watched as it all but disappeared in the waning minutes. Still, Laurel made enough free throws -- 13 in the final 4:14, actually -- to hold off Columbia Falls 59-50 on Thursday at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark.
Brett Thompson led Laurel with 25 points, making 7 of 10 free throws in the fourth quarter and 10 of 15 overall.
Even though their lead dissipated, the Locomotives held on for their 20th victory of the season, which pushed them into a Friday night semifinal against Stevensville.
“We got too complacent. We thought we had it in the bag,” Thompson said. “We relaxed a little too much, and Columbia Falls had a lot of fight in them. Next game, we can’t let that happen.”
After an opening quarter that had 10 lead changes, Laurel finally took control in the second on the strength of its perimeter shooting.
The Locomotives were 6 for 9 from 3-point range in the opening half, and grabbed a 24-17 advantage on an Evan Jones trey with 5:21 on the clock. Jones scored nine of his 17 points in the second quarter, including a transition layup that built a nine-point lead with 16 seconds before halftime.
Thompson converted a pair of three-point plays to extend the advantage in the third, and Taylor Maida scored five consecutive points at the outset of the fourth quarter as the Locomotives grabbed a 45-25 lead.
“We came out very confident and I thought we executed well on the offensive side,” said Laurel coach Pat Hansen. “We got some good shots off of rhythm, and I thought that helped us and the kids got some confidence early on.”
“Coach Hansen told us to come into the game confident and let it fly,” said Thompson, who made of 10 shots from the floor. “Don’t hold back and let it rip. I think that really gave us confidence, and the shots were falling.”
Defensively, Laurel did its job. Limiting Columbia Falls to one-shot possessions, the Locos held the Wildcats without a field goal for a 13:15 stretch until Colin King’s basket at the 6:50 mark of the fourth quarter.
But the Wildcats, perennial title contenders, didn’t go quietly.
King’s hoop sparked a 25-10 scoring run that allowed Columbia Falls to pare their deficit to 55-50 with 1:06 remaining on Luke Kazlauskas’ drive to the rim.
That forced Laurel to close the game from the foul line, which it did by making 13 of 18 in the final four minutes.
Wildcats’ coach Cary Finberg applauded his team’s fourth quarter performance. But the reason his team lost was obvious.
“We dug ourselves a hole, but I’m proud of our kids for battling back,” Finberg said. “But you add it up all together … they’re a good team and when you go 13 minutes without scoring a field goal, you’re not going to win.”
Maida added 13 points for the Locomotives, and hit 3 of 5 from 3-point range. Laurel was 8 for 14 from beyond the arc, and shot 55 percent from the field overall.
Trevor Houston led Columbia Falls with 13 points, 10 of which he scored in the fourth quarter. Kazlauskas had 12 and Jared Trinastich added 11.
The Wildcats, now 15-6, dropped into a Friday loser-out game against Browning. Stevensville beat Browning 65-64 in another first-round contest Thursday.
As for the 20-2 Locomotives, they’re back in the semifinal round as they chase their second title since 2010.
“Today’s game was the most important game, but (Friday’s) game is now the most important game,” Hansen said. “If you can put together a three-game winning streak here at the state tournament, things are good for you.”
Top scorers for CFalls were Presnell (13), Kazlauskas (12) and Trinastich (11).
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Gavlak's layup lifts Stevi over Browning, 65-64
After preaching for two weeks to feed the ball down low, the Stevensville Yellowjackets delivered just in the nick of time.
In a matchup featuring two of the top three win-loss records in the state, Stevensville’s Zach Gavlak scored a layup with 11 seconds remaining to give the Yellowjackets a thrilling 65-64 win over Browning in the first round of the State A boys basketball tournament Thursday at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark.
Gavlak’s layup was one of many game changing baskets in a heart-stopping fourth quarter that featured 10 lead changes, six in the final two minutes.
“Our team was very focused all week,” said Gavlak, the 6-foot-4 junior who finished with 12 points and overcame committing a team-high 11 turnovers.
“We did what we needed to do down the stretch and got down the floor quick. Once I got the pass and put up the shot, it felt amazing. More than anything, it’s nice to celebrate with my team for the first win of the tournament.”
After a fast-paced first quarter that featured four ties and four lead changes, Stevensville (18-3) went on a run early in the second frame establishing a seven-point advantage that they held until the beginning of the fourth quarter.
Using a frantic full-court pressure defense that forced Stevensville to commit a season-high 31 turnovers, Browning (17-4) finally broke through in the fourth quarter and grabbed a 47-46 lead with 7:32 remaining -- its first since the 2:23 mark in the first quarter when it was ahead 15-14.
“We generally don’t play that up-tempo style, that’s more open gym type stuff and if you’re not ready for it, it’s hard to simulate that,” said Keith Chambers, who is in his 22nd season as coach at Stevensville. “We were just fortunate we were ahead when time ran out.”
After taking the lead and forcing another turnover, Browning capitalized on a key three-point play from Jalen Croff to cap an 8-0 run and take its largest lead of the game, 50-46.
After that, Chambers called a timeout to emphasize to his team to feed the post more, and that’s exactly what the Yellowjackets did. Jesse Sims scored on a layup, and then on the next trip down the floor had a three-point play of his own to help Stevensville regain the lead 51-50.
Sims finished with a team-high 20 points converting on 8 of 9 free throw attempts and added nine rebounds.
“They didn’t do anything different than we thought, they just had more energy then we did in the second half,” said Chambers. “You have to fight fire with fire and our decision making was suspect at times, but it’s easy to sit on the sidelines and say you should have done things differently. Again, we were very fortunate enough to win at the end.”
DeeJay Lazy Boy had a game-high 25 points for Browning, but missed a 3-pointer from the top of the key just after time expired in the fourth quarter.
“I was waiting for Stevensville to crack because we were going hard at them for the last two quarters,” said first-year Browning coach Mark Magee. “I knew they were tired and I thought a couple times we let them rest when we should have attacked. They found their second wind a couple of times and that was the difference in the game. They are a great team and knew what it would take to get the job done.”
Stevensville, which has never won a boys state basketball championship, will face Laurel in the semifinals at 6:30 p.m. Friday in a matchup of the two top-ranked teams in Class A the majority of the season. Laurel defeated Columbia Falls 59-50 on Thursday.
Columbia Falls and Browning will square off Friday at 12:30 p.m. in a loser-out contest.