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.
Maroons ready for another State run
Heading into the Class A State tournament, the Butte Central girls’ basketball team is focusing on what it has rather than what it doesn’t.
The Maroons (16-4) are looking for their second State title in three years when they open the tournament at 2 p.m. Thursday against Browning (11-10) at the Butte Civic Center. (Bracket)
BC will be without leading scorer Danee Leary for Thursday’s opener and likely the entire tournament after Leary suffered a concussion in Saturday’s win over Hamilton in the Southwestern A Divisional championship game.
Butte Central coach Meg Murphy said she’s planning on playing without Leary, a senior who averages 13.6 points and 8.9 rebounds per game.
“If she does she does, it’s an added bonus,” Murphy said of Leary playing. “If not, we’ll do what we have to do.”
The Maroons have six other seniors they’ll lean on.
Mariah Cooney is second on the team in scoring with 9.1 points per game. The 6-foot senior averages 9.4 boards.
Seniors Alysea Pica, Hannah Stajcar, Annie Ossello and Danika Neumann will also start for the Maroons. Senior Aleesha LaBreche will contribute off the bench.
Juniors Chandra McCurdy, Shelby Paffhausen and Taylure Templin and Freshman Shawnee Hjelt, Sierra Pica and Teresa Piazzola have also logged some big minutes for the Maroons this season.
“I like our chances,” Murphy said. “Those seniors are just great kids. We’re still pretty solid. We’ve never been a one-dimensional team. I don’t think losing one player makes us that way.”
Neumann, who spent most of the season as the sixth man, averages 8.4 points in BC’s balanced lineup. Pica Scores 7.7, while Stajcar adds 6.8. All are capable of going off for 20 points.
Murphy said the Maroons will miss Leary’s presence on the boards.
“We’re going to miss her physicality and ability to board,” Murphy said. “We’re going to look to Ossello and Cooney to pick that up.”
The tournament features five teams who made it to State last year, when the event was also played at the Civic Center. The Maroons find themselves on what appears to be the toughest side of the bracket.
After Browning, a team that crushed Livingston in the Central A challenge game Monday, the Maroons could be looking at the prospect of playing defending champion Billings Central (14-7) or Columbia Falls (17-4), the No. 1 team in the last Associated Press Power Poll.
Butte Central, which was ranked No. 2 in the last poll, fell 46-36 to Billings Central in last year’s championship game.
Marty Eagle Feathers, who averaged 13.5 points per game in the regular season, scored 16 points in Browning’s 62-36 win over Livingston Monday. Tiara Gilham scored 14. She averaged 8.9 points and 9.2 rebounds per game in the regular season.
“Browning is as good as anybody in the tournament. We’re going to have our hands full,” Murphy said. “Billings Central is going to have their hands full. It’s a going to be a great tournament. It’s wide open.”
On the other half of the bracket, Frenchtown (11-9), Laurel (16-6) and Havre (13-7) are making a return trip to State. Stevensville (12-9), led by future University of Montana player Alycia Sims, bounced back to beat Hamilton in the Southwestern A challenge game.
Butte Central is making its fourth straight State tournament appearance, and some of those players have been four-year contributors. Three years ago, BC made State for the first time in a generation.
“As far as overall experience, we probably played the most tournament games and big games,” Murphy said. “I like our kids. They’re going to come and compete.”