The Wildkats saw their hopes for a state title dashed after the opening game of the Class A State basketball tourney, but battled their way back through the bracket to win three games to earn the third-place crown for the second consecutive year.
A disastrous first quarter against Laurel in the opening game Thursday morning proved to be too much for the Kats to overcome, but the team bounced back with wins over Libby and Billings Central before avenging their loss against Laurel by beating the Locomotives in overtime to earn the third-place trophy Saturday afternoon.
“It feels good to get another trophy. I really feel there were five teams there that could have won it, but things just didn’t go our way,” head coach Cary Finberg said. “It was a tremendous season, but it would have been fun to play Havre and see what happened, but the first quarter against Laurel cost us that opportunity.”
The girls finished the season with school-record 25 wins and only two losses.
The Kats had a rough time in their opening game Thursday morning, committing 30 turnovers in a 58-29 loss to the Laurel Locomotives.
The Locomotives set the tone early, knocking down their first six three-point attempts as Laurel scored the first 21 points of the contest.
Laurel would not hit another three in the contest, but the deficit was too much to overcome for the Wildkats as Columbia Falls never came closer than 19.
“They made their shots early and we made some mistakes early and it just quickly got away from us. It really snowballed on us and we just couldn’t recover,” Finberg said about the loss.
Trista Cowan was the leading scorer for the Kats in the loss with eight points and added a game-high seven rebounds as Columbia Falls won the rebounding battle, 27-18.
The Kats bounced back with a convincing win over Libby in their second game of the tournament, downing the Lady Loggers 48-33.
The Kats had most recently defeated the Lady Loggers by just four at the Divisional Tournament, but Finberg said his team was not going to let the game be that close again.
“We did a better job of getting to their shooters. After the loss to Laurel, I think we just came out with a little better focus and we just weren’t going to let Libby hang around this time.”
Cowan led the way for the Kats in the win with 18 points and nine rebounds in the win while Kehr added 13 points, seven rebounds and two assists.
The Kats next took on the top seed from the east in Billings Central after the Rams fell to Hardin in the semifinals.
With the Rams boasting several six-footers on their roster, the Kats knew they would have to take away the paint to get a win, and that’s just what they did as Columbia Falls picked up a 43-38 victory.
“You don’t realize how big Billings Central is until you get on the floor and are standing next to them. They were the tallest team I have seen since I have been coaching the girls,” Finberg said. “It was probably our most complete game defensively as far as doing what we had planned.”
Kehr led the Wildkats with 14 points, nine rebounds, four steals and three assists in the win.
The Kats were able to avenge their first-round loss to Laurel in the consolation game, downing the Locomotives in overtime, 46-44.
“We did a better job of starting in that game and it was more of how we thought the first game was going to go. We basically had the same game plan, they just didn’t come out and hit all their shots like they did before,” Finberg said.
The Kats led by as many as 14 late in the third quarter, but saw Laurel come back to grab a two-point lead with less than 20 seconds to play in regulation. Kehr was able to put in a shot off the glass with 12 seconds to play to force overtime, where they Kats pulled out a two-point win.
“We knew they were going to make a run on us. We sort of hit a wall at the end of the third quarter, but we relaxed and they started coming back on us.” Finberg said. “We were able to make a big play to get it into overtime and how we survived in overtime, I don’t know. It was all guts and pure heart.”
The Kats got 16 points and five rebounds from Cowan and 11 points, 14 rebounds, two assists and two blocked shots by Kehr in the victory.