The journey may not have been as easy as the Wildkats had planned, but they got the result they were looking for in Hamilton over the weekend as the team went 3-0 to earn the Western A Divisional girls basketball title.
The Kats survived a determined effort from Corvallis in the opening round Thursday, downing the Lady Blue Devils 65-57. got a tough test from Libby in the semi-final Friday but beat the Lady Loggers 37-33 before defeating Browning 59-52 in the title game Saturday evening.
Senior guard Ryley Kehr had an outstanding tournament to help lead the way for the Wildkats, averaging 19 points (including a career high 30 against Corvallis) and more than eight rebounds per contest, while the Kats also got strong contributions from several of its younger players, including freshman Maddie Robison, sophomores Madysen Hoerner and Hannah Schweikert and junior Josie Windauer.
“I don’t ever remember coaching a girl that went for 30 points in a game. Someone might have, but I don’t remember it. I think I only ever had one or two boys do it. Ryley had a spectacular game. The second half of this year, she has been as good as anyone I have ever coached,” head coach Cary Finberg said. “When we needed our younger players against Browning, they all stepped up big for us. Both Maddies, Hannah and Josie all had a big game for us in the championship. We couldn’t have won it without them.”
The Wildkats had their hands full in the opening game of tournament Thursday as they battled to earn a 65-57 win over the Corvallis Lady Blue Devils.
Led by Kehr’s 30 points, nine rebounds, six assists and five steals, the Kats withstood a three-point barrage from the Lady Blue Devils, including seven triples by Lainie Albright.
“They shot the ball very well. We had a few defensive breakdowns during the game and they made us pay for them almost every time,” Finberg said.
Kehr scored 19 in the first half as the Kats ran out to a 32-21 lead, but Albright and the Blue Devils had an answer in the third quarter, outscoring Columbia Falls 20-16, including a stretch that saw Corvallis put in six consecutive shots.
The Kats went up nine on a three-point play by LaKia Hill early in the fourth but the Lady Blue Devils cut the lead to 59-55 with 1:39 to play.
A blocked shot by Hoerner led to a Windauer layup to put the Kats up six with one minute to play, but Hadli Lords answered with a basket for Corvallis to cut the lead back to four with 48 seconds to play.
The Kats put the game away in the closing moments as Kehr and Hill knocked down four consecutive free throws as Columbia Falls held on to win by eight.
“They made a run at us and give credit to them for that, but you also have to give credit to our kids for withstanding that push,” Finberg said. “We responded and made some big plays when we had to.”
Along with Kehr’s 30 points, Trista Cowan finished with nine points, Hoerner had eight, Hill scored seven, Windauer had five points, Schweikert scored four and Robison added two.
The Kats found themselves in another close game in the semi-final Friday as they held on late to get past Libby, 37-33.
The Kats had defeated the Lady Loggers by more than 20 points twice in the regular season, but Libby was playing without a healthy Jayden Winslow.
“I knew it was going to be a tougher game this time around. When they have a healthy Jayden handling the ball, they are not going to turn the ball over much and that made a big difference,” Finberg said.
After trailing by as many as four in the second quarter, the Kats took a narrow 15-14 lead into the break.
Windauer and Cowan sparked the offense as Columbia Falls scored the first 11 points of the third quarter to go up 26-14, but the Lady Loggers answered with a 15-4 run and cut the lead 32-31 on a Winslow free throw with 3:56 to play in the third.
The battle continued in the fourth quarter as Alli Collins cut the Wildkat lead to 35-33 with 57 seconds to play, but steal by Cowan and two free throws from Kehr in the final seconds helped secure the win as the Kats held on for a four-point victory.
Finberg said the Libby defense deserved credit for slowing down the Kats offense to keep the contest close.
“We did not shoot the ball well, they took away the interior for us and we went 3-23 from three. Their defense had a plan and they stuck to it and we didn’t show enough patience to take advantage of it,” he said.
Kehr led the Wildkats with 17 points, four rebounds and three steals in the win while Cowan scored 10 and added five boards. Windauer had seven points and Savvy Ellis scored three.
Saturday evening saw what many assumed was the inevitable rematch of Browning and Columbia Falls in the divisional title game as the teams met for the fourth time this season.
The Kats got 27 points off the bench from Schweikert, Robison and Hoerner and Windauer celebrated her birthday with a team-high 16 points and 13 rebounds as Columbia Falls held off a late charge from the Lady Indians to pick up a 59-52 victory and the divisional crown.
The Kats also dominated the Lady Indians on the boards, outrebounding Browning 54-38 in the contest, including 28 offensive rebounds.
Foul trouble plagued the Kats in the first quarter as Cowan was forced to the bench with 4:57 to play after picking up her second foul. Browning took advantage, breaking through the Wildkat press for several layups to build a 13-11 lead after eight minutes of play.
Columbia Falls took the lead on the opening play of the second quarter as Schweikert knocked down a three that helped spark a 10-0 Columbia Falls run. Finberg elected to drop out of the full court press and the Wildkat halfcourt scheme worked to great effect, hold one the best three-point shooting teams without a triple in the first half. The Kats went up by as many as nine in the frame before settling for a 30-22 halftime advantage, despite going 2-15 from the foul line in the first half.
“Browning took advantage of our press in the first quarter and built a little bit of a lead, so we decided to get out of it. I think that helped turn things around for us,” Finberg said. “I think not pressing and setting up in our half-court defense helped shut down their shooters. They weren’t getting away from our press to get open looks at threes.”
Columbia Falls continued to add to its lead in the third quarter and went up by as many as 15 in the fourth before Browning fought its way back to cut the lead to 55-50 with 1:15 to play. A lob pass from Cowan to Hoerner on an inbounds play put the Kats up seven with under 30 seconds to play and Windauer knocked down a pair of free throws to ice the game with 11.9 seconds to go.
Windauer’s 16 points, 13 rebounds and four assists led the Kats in the win while Kehr finished with 10 points, 12 rebounds, four steals, two assist a block and, most impressively, zero turnovers. Schweikert added 10 points and five rebounds, Robison scored nine and had five assists and five rebounds, Hoerner scored eight with nine rebounds and four blocked shots, Hill had two points, seven rebounds and four assists and Cowan and Ellis each scored two.
With the win, the Kats advance to the State Tournament in Great Falls as a No. 1 seed, where they will face Laurel in the opening round at 9 a.m. March 7. See next week’s Hungry Horse News for a tournament preview.