It was a timeout worthy of state championships.
Columbia Falls head basketball coach Cary Finberg asked for the stoppage 2 minutes, 34 seconds into Saturday night’s State Class A Girls’ Championship Game against Hardin. He had just watched his team’s opponent score the first eight points of the game and needed to say something to settle his troops.
Finberg reminded his players about fighting adversity, and the Wildkats responded. They picked themselves up and outscored Hardin by 31 points through the rest of the game.
The final buzzer closed the door on a 73-50 win over the Bulldogs and unleashed a celebration that the Columbia Falls girls’ basketball program had been waiting for since winning its last title in 1983.
“It feels great,” said Finberg, who remained stoic through most of the game but finally started to crack a celebration smile with about 1:40 to play in the contest. “It comes back to adversity. We’re going to have adversity at some time throughout the game, once, twice or three times. Our adversity was early.”
A couple of missed bunnies, combined with Hardin’s usual high-powered attack was the perfect recipe that the Bulldogs needed to build that 8-0 lead.
Columbia Falls came out of the timeout, was suddenly able to work the ball inside for some easy baskets, and the Wildkats’ long-range shooters did their thing.
Dani Douglas and Peyton Kehr helped engineer a Columbia Falls comeback from beyond the 3-point arc, while Kiara Burlage and Cydney Finberg took care of business from closer range.
The Wildkats closed out the first quarter on a 22-7 run and with a 22-15 lead.
Sydney Hovde was the stopper inside of the paint, denying Hardin players easy looks and easy baskets. She was also there to clean up the misses, with five defensive rebounds in the first half.
Hardin was able to score consecutive points only twice more throughout the rest of the first half.
Hardin was hoping for some more of that comeback magic that allowed the Bulldogs to overcome a first-half deficit in Friday night’s semifinal win over Belgrade.
The Bulldogs trimmed a double-digit lead to six points by halftime of that contest and rode that momentum into Saturday’s finale.
They weren’t able to repeat the effort. Baskets by Aubrey Meiwald and Madisan Chavez cut into Columbia Falls’ lead in the closing seconds of the first half but Chavez was called for a foul on Kiara Burlage’s buzzer-beating halfcourt heave, sending Burlage to the line without any time on the clock. Burlage sank two of three free throws to keep the Wildkats’ lead at seven points.
A 3-pointer by Chavez made it a four-point game (37-33) early in the third quarter and the Wildkats took it from there. Columbia Falls rode an 18-3 run to the end of the third quarter, leaving little doubt as to which team was the best in Class A this season.
“They’re a good team but once we started getting look after look after look, it was just a matter of time,” Finberg said. “We’re too good. We’re not going to miss them the whole game. Once we scored, we were able to set up our defense as opposed to turning it over and having them get easy baskets.”
Kehr led the Wildkats with 22 points, and Burlage was close behind with 19. Douglas added 16 to the winning effort.
The win pushed the proverbial monkey off the backs of the Wildkats, who placed second at last seasons’ state tournament, and third the two seasons before that.
Finberg said that nothing was going to get in the way of his team’s mission this season.
“The last four years we knew we had a team that potentially could do it,” he said. “We just didn’t play well enough to do it, and it cost us the last three years.
“This team is special. These girls worked for this, and with this performance, I don’t think there is any doubt.
“If we play them again it could be a different game. (Saturday night) was our night. Regardless of who we were playing, we were going to get it done.”
Hardin came into the contest seeking its first championship since 1994. While the loss stung, the Bulldogs had plenty to be proud of after a two-loss season.
“I’m proud of how far they came and to be able to play in the state championship game,” Hardin coach Cindy Farmer said. “Yeah, obviously you want a better outcome. We just missed too many defensive assignments. But they played hard. They gave everything they had so I’m proud of that.
“It was an amazing season and year. So many great things. We had a 20-game winning streak and we only lost two games. They have so much to be proud of. Like I said, I couldn’t be prouder of them all.”
Chavez and Meiwald led the Bulldogs with 22 and 10 points, respectively.