GREAT FALLS – For the sixth straight season, the Wildcats boys’ basketball team will bring a State A tournament trophy back home to Columbia Falls.
All that’s left to decide now is whether the 2014 installment will be gold of silver.
Columbia Falls set up camp at the free throw line Friday and put Laurel away one point at a time in a 57-48 semifinal victory at Great Falls’ Four Seasons Arena. The win thrust the Wildcats into their sixth championship game in the past 10 seasons.
“We just wanted to hit our free throws so we could go to the championship,” C. Falls senior forward Jared Trinastich said. “We knew if we could do that, we’d be going on to Saturday night.”
The State A title will be decided at 8 p.m. Saturday. Columbia Falls plays the winner of Friday’s other semifinal featuring Dillon and Belgrade.
Columbia Falls (18-4) shot an NBA-worthy 25 of 28 from the free throw line Friday – just below 90 percent as a team. That included a 15-of-16 stretch in the fourth quarter that kept Laurel (19-3) at bay.
“If you foul ’em, they’re not going to give you any opportunities,” Laurel coach Patrick Hansen Jr. said. “When that clock is stopped, they’re scoring; when the clock is running, they’re scoring.”
Laurel opened the semifinal bout with five quick points and led 6-2 before two minutes had expired. Then C. Falls built the lead it would feed off of for the rest of the game with a 15-0 run that nearly sent the game into the second quarter.
“It’s not too much of a hole because it was early on,” Hanson said. “It just seemed any time that we’d chip away at it in the second half – we cut it to five, cut it to six – a kid like (Alex) Presnell comes down and hits a big three.”
Presnell punched in two triples in that first-quarter stretch and finished with 14 points. Trinastich had a game-high 18 that included a 7-for-8 showing on free throws.
Ty Morgan, a scorer of 12 points, was also 7 of 8 and Presnell hit all six of his attempts.
But the Locomotives kept chugging along. A 25-foot 3-pointer to start the fourth quarter from Evan Jones – who hit another equally long bomb later in the frame – brought Laurel back within 36-32.
It was the fourth straight quarter that Laurel hit the scoreboard first.
“We want to start quarters quick and end quarters on a positive note,” C. Falls coach Cary Finberg started. “We didn’t necessarily start them quick tonight, but we ended every quarter very well.”
In the fourth, that meant the parade of free throws.
Presnell hit two in a row before adding a 15-foot jumper, and Trinastich laid in a softy to push the lead back to 10 at 42-32. After four points back by Laurel, C. Falls finished the game with 13 more free throws in 14 attempts.
That included three straight fouls in the bonus that sent Morgan to the line with 1-and-1 opportunities. He connected on all six demoralizing shots.
Free throws so dominated the Cats’ scoring that they needed only 13 field goals on 28 attempts to tally 57 points.
Laurel shot 18 of 44 from the field, but made just 50 percent (6-12) of its freebies.
Jones, who finished with 13 points, and Zac Allen accounted for all the makes. Allen led the Locomotives, which play for a shot at third place Saturday against Polson at 9:30 a.m., by scoring 17 points.