State A

Hardin's Sharmayne Hardy flies past Belgrade's Kiah Hohenstein and Krista Brown, right, for a shot during the second quarter of Friday's State A semifinal at the Butte Civic Center.

Walter Hinick, walter.hinick@lee.net

BUTTE -- It only took 64 seconds.

Kayle Nystrom’s 3-point basket with 4:42 left in the third quarter gave the Havre girls’ basketball team a one-point lead over Columbia Falls.

Sixty-four seconds later, the Wildkats flipped the switch.

Columbia Falls responded to its only deficit of Friday night’s State Class A semifinal game with a 13-2 run to close out the third quarter.

The Wildkats sank 14 of 25 free throws in the fourth quarter to secure a 55-42 victory and a spot in Saturday night’s championship game at the Butte Civic Center.

Columbia Falls will play Hardin, a 71-57 winner over Belgrade in the other semifinal in Saturday’s championship game .Tip-off is scheduled for 8 p.m.

The Wildkats will go into this year’s finale looking to make up for last season. And the season before, and the one before that.

Columbia Falls lost in last season’s championship game and placed third in each of the previous two seasons.

Columbia Falls’ appearance at the state tournament is nothing new but a victory in the championship game will be the Wildkats’ first since 1983.

“It’s a switch that should have been flipped earlier,” Columbia Falls coach Cary Finberg said. “We haven’t had a lot of adversity this year. Our focus the last month of the season was dealing with things when they don’t go your way because you know that come tournament time, things aren’t going to go your way always. That’s been our focus.”

The Wildkats certainly got plenty of that.

The early part of the game played out as expected.

Columbia Falls had the height and used it to its advantage, while Havre relied on a pesky defense and a speedy offense.

The only part of that plan that wasn’t working was the shooting accuracy from either side.

Havre missed the first four shots it took in the game, with its first points coming on a basket by Kyndall Keller.

The Wildkats weren’t doing much better and had only scored four points by the time the Blue Ponies got on the board.

Columbia Falls found its rhythm sooner, however and used a 9-4 run to close out the first quarter with a 15-6 lead.

The Wildkats pulled out to a nine-point lead with a little more than five minutes to play in the second quarter but the Blue Ponies cut that to two points by the end of the half.

The teams went back and forth during the opening minutes of the third quarter before Nystrom drained her long-range shot from the left corner.

But despite the Havre fans roaring with approval, Columbia Falls found a way to steal the momentum.

Free throws by Peyton Kehr and Sydney Hovde put the Wildkats back in front but Kehr added a 3-pointer that officially turned the tide.

“After we went down, we really wanted it,” said Hovde, who led the Wildkats with 16 points. “We just got fired up and went after it. It takes work but once one of us does it, it pretty-much spreads to the whole team.”

It kept on spreading. Havre forced Columbia Falls to hold its lead at the free-throw line and the Wildkats obliged. Kehr finished with 15 points, and Kiara Burlage added 10 for the finalists.

“We fouled the crap out of them I’ll give them that,” Havre coach Dustin Kraske said. “They hit their free throws. They played better than us and they deserved to win. Our kids I thought had a valiant effort.

“Foul shots were the difference. We knew we had to take transition baskets away. We knew we had to not foul. I thought our defensive effort was pretty good, but we fouled too much.”

Havre got a team-high nine points from both Ceyara Plante and Kyndall Keller. The Blue Ponies will return to the civic center on Saturday morning for a 9:30 game against Corvallis.

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Hardin used a similar approach to advance to its first championship game since 1994 but had to come back from a larger deficit.

Belgrade led by double-digits late in the first half, using length-of-court passes to get behind Hardin’s defense. Those resulted in easy baskets for the Panthers.

Belgrade also held a 24-16 advantage on rebounds in the first half.

The Bulldogs’ comeback started late in the first half when they were able to climb to within six points.

“I think we were playing too tight and trying to force things,” Hardin coach Cindy Farmer said. “We did want to get that lead down to six or eight points. The way we had played, that was good. It could have been a lot worse.”

The Bulldogs continued that comeback trend in the third quarter when they were finally able to catch and pass the Panthers. A 20-7 run did the trick for Hardin.

Belgrade had trouble fighting back during much of that run because Kiah Hohenstein and Shania Neubauer were sidelined in foul trouble.

“Coming into the second half, they got back on track,” Farmer added. “Once they get on a roll, if we can get stops and rebounds, we can transition, get steals and get some easy baskets.”

The loss conjured up some painful memories for Belgrade, which lost in similar fashion to Hardin in the semifinals of last week’s divisional tournament.

The Bulldogs used a 31-point fourth quarter to win that game.

“We had a great effort,” Belgrade coach Sarah Fowler said. “We just turned the ball over I think a few too many times during the third quarter there.

“I knew they were going to start making shots. I knew that was something we were going to have to try to contend with.”

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