The Columbia Falls girls' basketball team was one win away from being crowned the Class A champion last season until Butte Central derailed that dream.
The Wildkats are back this season, and in line for the championship that eluded them. And they won't have Butte Central as an obstacle this time around.
Columbia Falls started the Class A state tournament on the right foot, Thursday afternoon at the Butte Civic Center, beating the Laurel Locomotives, 59-35. The Wildkats will play against Havre at 6:30 p.m.
Havre reached the semifinals by beating Butte Central, the defending Class champion.
The second semifinal game will feature Belgrade against Hardin at 8 p.m.
The first consolation game on Friday will pit Laurel against Butte Central at 12:30 p.m., with Corvallis and Hamilton playing at 2 p.m.
Even though it was a victory for Columbia Falls, coach Cary Finberg said the team needs to handle pressure better.
“When you get to the state tournament, you want to get that win to advance,” he said. “Obviously, you want to play well doing it, but the ultimate goal is just getting there any way you can. I thought we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish (Thursday).”
The Wildkats had a comfortable 16-point cushion over the Locomotives by the beginning of the second half but that's when Laurel’s shots finally began to fall.
The Locomotives scored just 13 points in the first half against the Wildkats, and 11 of them were scored by sophomore Aspen Cotter. She also scored Laurel’s first two buckets in the quarter before Kaitlyn Dawes drove to the basket for her first points of the game.
But the Wildkats were too far ahead of the Locomotives to make a difference. Laurel added foul trouble to woes, and Columbia Falls took advantage at the free-throw line, Sydney Hovde hitting a pair to give the Wildkats a 43-20 lead with 38 seconds left in the third quarter.
The fourth quarter was the best offensively for the Locomotives, who scored 15 points in those final eight minutes. But Columbia Falls didn’t let off the gas as it dashed away with the win and a trip to the semifinals.
The Wildkats were led by Hovde's 15 points and four rebounds. Kiara Burlage had a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Columbia Falls shot 45 percent from the field, 66 percent from the free-throw line.
Laurel coach Amber Griffith said it was tough to compete with the towering Wildkats.
“We’re glad to be here, but we would have liked to have competed a little bit better,” she said. “We hope to bounce back and put together another good effort (on Friday.) I thought our kids played hard, but sometimes you’re just a little bit outmatched. Obviously, Columbia Falls is a good basketball team.”
BELGRADE 60, CORVALLIS 53
The Panthers didn’t advance to divisional tournament last season. This year, team is heading the state semifinals after defeating the Blue Devils.
Belgrade coach Sarah Fowler said the biggest takeaway from the win was confidence.
“I saw a lot of nerves tonight,” she said. “I still think they’re going to be nervous (Friday), but hopefully not as nervous.”
The Panthers held a 54-49 lead with 1:13 remaining but the Blue Devils closed the gap and and eventually pulled to within two points.
Corvallis then turned around and sent Belgrade to the mercy stripe on consecutive possessions. The Panthers, who shot 74 percent from the line, nailed all four shots. It was the difference-maker as Belgrade held on for the win.
The Panthers were led by Shania Neubauer, who scored 17 points. Kiah Hohenstein added 16 points and four rebounds.
After a slow offensive first quarter, the Panthers found their spark off the bench from Hohenstein. At the end of the first frame, Hohenstein drained her first 3-pointer of the night. During the next quarter, she knocked back three treys to give Belgrade a 21-17 lead.
“That Hohenstein girl? She really did a lot of damage to us in that first half,” Corvallis coach Andy Knapp said. “She really came out hit a lot of shots. That was a big difference, but it wasn’t the only difference. Belgrade did a lot of good things.”
Corvallis was led by Haldorson with 17 points and three steals. Emme Warnken chipped in 13 points and three steals as well.
HARDIN 69, HAMILTON 54
The Bulldogs held on to defeat the Broncs and advanced to the semifinals.
Hardin was led by senior Madisan Chavez with 15 points and six rebounds. Senior Aubrey Meiwald had a double-double with 12 points and 13 rebounds.
The Broncs were led by senior Reilly Rostad with 15 points and two steals. Senior Rachael Ringer dominated the boards with 13 rebounds and chipped in nine points as well.
On Friday, the Bulldogs will face the Belgrade Panthers. During divisionals, the Bulldogs defeated the Panthers.
"We stress every single day that it’s just one game at a time, one game at a time," Bulldogs coach Cindy Farmer said. "It doesn’t matter who our opponent is or if we’ve played them 20 times or not at all. We respect all and go out and do what we do. ... We just keep everything as normal as possible. We try to keep our routine going."