In the first minutes of the Columbia Falls girls basketball championship game against Hardin coach Cary Finberg called a timeout. He looked around and only four girls were in the huddle.
The fifth, Peyton Kehr, was over at the wastebasket throwing up.
She came back to her teammates.
“You doing all right?” Finberg asked.
“I am now,” Kehr replied.
The senior forward went out and scored 22 points as the Wildkats (23-1) dropped the Bulldogs (22-2) 73-50 in Butte to win their first state title since 1983.
Kehr was named the MVP of the tournament.
“I was just nervous,” she explained Monday as she got ready to get on a fire truck ride through town. She explained that sometimes she gets a little overheated and sick to her stomach.
“I told him, ‘Yep, I’m ready to go,’ and I went back out on the court,” Kehr said.
The championship match against Hardin didn’t start out in the Kats’ favor. Hardin, utilizing a press defense and some timely shooting, shot out to an 8-0 lead.
After several outside shots didn’t drop, senior Cydney Finberg broke the scoring drought with a drive to the basket to make it 8-2. Finberg was dealing with illness of her own — she had strep throat. This was no time to feel sick, however.
“I knew someone had to do it,” she said.
And then the Kats put on the jets, shot after shot began to drop and the 8-point deficit became a 22-15 lead at the end of the first quarter — a 15 point swing.
Hardin cut the margin to five late in the second, but fouled senior Kiara Burlage on a three-pointer as time expired. Burlage drained two of the three shots to make it 37-30 at the half.
In the second half, the Kats ratcheted down their defensive effort a notch and broke Hardin’s press, which led to a slew of breakaway layups. The Bulldogs just couldn’t keep up.
The Kats held the Bulldogs to just 30 percent shooting in the second half and just 20 percent from the three-point line.
Senior Kiara Burlage, who has been the team’s rock all season long, had 19 points and 13 rebounds, Cydney ended up with 11 points and two steals and Dani Douglas had 16 points, including three three-pointers.
As a team they shot 49 percent, had 34 rebounds and 11 steals.
Hardin had 23 rebounds, but just seven were offensive. They also had 19 turnovers.
The Kats were also golden from the line, shooting 85 percent from the charity stripe. Midway through the fourth quarter, the game was all but over.
The girls opened the tourney Thursday with a 59-35 drubbing of Laurel. Defense, as it has been all season, was key for the Kats again. They held the Locomotives to just five points in the first quarter and just 13 at the half.
Sydney Hovde had 15 to lead the Kats, Burlage had 13 and Douglas had 11.
The next day, Havre proved a tougher test. The Kats shot out to a 15-6 lead in the first quarter, but the Blue Ponies hung in there and were down just three points at the half. In the third, Havre took the lead briefly, but the Kats made some adjustments and got the ball inside to Hovde, who was often wide open as Havre came out to guard the Kats’ outside shooters.
Hovde led the squad with 16, Kehr had 15, and Burlage had 10 as the Kats pulled away for the 55-42 victory.
This title run was a total team effort.
“We worked really hard to get here,” Hovde said. “The last three years we came up short. We knew we wanted it so we went out and got it.”
The senior girls went 88-8 in their four years in high school. They took two third-place trophies at state and one second place last year — a bitter defeat to rival Butte Central.
For Cydney, the championship brought tears.
“It feels more than good,” she said. “It meant the world to me to bring this championship home for my family, the players and the community ... I’m so happy to do it on our last game.”
Coach Finberg said one couldn’t have scripted it any better. The girls proved they were the best team in the state. Every opponent threw every defense imaginable at them, but they had too much talent. They rebuffed all charges.
“They had so much talent and so many options, it didn’t matter,” he said.
They averaged 67 points a game going into the tourney and averaged just over 62 points for the tournament — a feat that is rarely seen in girls high school basketball.
Finberg credited the hard work the girls put in the last four years and their unselfish play.
“They were unselfish enough and talented enough to take advantage of what was thrown at them,” he said.
Will coach return again next season?
“I haven’t decided,” he said. He said he’ll evaluate how he feels over the course of the next month — open gyms start in April. He’s been coaching now for 30 seasons, but he’s only 51.
“I’m not making any hasty decisions,” he said.
Laurel 5 8 7 15 — 35
C. Falls 14 15 14 16 — 59
LAUREL — Rylee Clark 3, Aspen Cotter 20, Paige O’Toole 2, Dakota Boehler 2, Kaitlyn Dawes 3, Sami Spitzer 1, Riley Chapman 4.
COLUMBIA FALLS — Dani Douglas 11, Cydney Finberg 8, Peyton Kehr 8, Kiara Burlage 13, Sydney Hovde 15, Ryley Kehr 2, Trista Cowan 2.
C.Falls 15 6 16 18 — 55
Havre 6 13 8 15 — 42
COLUMBIA FALLS — Dani Douglas 8, Cydney Finberg 5, Peyton Kehr 15, Kiara Burlage 10, Sydney Hovde 16, Hannah Gedlaman 1.
HAVRE — Ceyera Plante 9, Kyndall Keller 9, Kaylee Nystrom 6, Naomi Terry 8, Danielle Wallace 4, Smantha Oliver 2, Kyley Verploegen 4.
C. Falls 22 15 18 18 — 73
Hardin 15 15 6 14 — 50
Columbia Falls: Dani Douglas 16, Cydney Finberg 11, Peyton Kehr 22, Kiara Burlage 19, Sydney Hovde 2, Haylie Peacock 2, Trista Cowan 1.
Hardin: Madisan Chavez 22, Sharmayne Hardy 7, Trahnea Phelan 5, Aubrey Meiwald 10, Ivery Fritzler 1, Mashaya Alden 5.