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GREAT FALLS — The chant from the Havre student section began with 18.3 seconds to play.

"Undefeated! Undefeated! Undefeated!"

Indeed they are.

The top-ranked Blue Ponies capped the perfect season in the perfect way Saturday night, fending off relentless Hardin 42-35 in a breathless back-and-forth showdown for the Class A girls state basketball championship.

The final buzzer elicited a celebration on one bench and tears of dejection on the other. 

"Oh, I'm really happy," said senior guard Kylee Nystrom, whose 3-point shot from the corner with 5:25 remaining put the Blue Ponies up 35-24 and essentially was the dagger. "I'm liking this feeling. I've never had this feeling before in my life."

Havre (24-0) won its fifth state title -- fourth in Class A -- by playing ferocious defense and managing the Hardin (19-5) pressure as well as any guards could. For the second consecutive game, the Ponies held their opponent to 10 percent shooting (2 for 20) in the first half.

"No kidding?" asked Havre coach Dustin Kraske, whose team turned the same trick in their semifinal win over Browning on Friday. "No kidding -- that's impressive."

Even so, the Bulldogs led 18-17 at halftime and turned up the pressure when they fell behind by 11. They pulled within 36-30 in the final 3:24 but twice missed shots to trim the deficit and finished shooting 15.9 percent.

"It was really tough," Hardin coach Cindy Farmer said outside a somber Bulldogs locker room, where teary-eyed players emerged to hugs and tears from their followers in the hallway.

"It was a back and forth game, possession by possession, and I just think when we did get behind by more than two or three we just started rushing things and not running our offense. Our defense was still OK, but we were just forcing things. Credit Havre, and my girls gave everything they had. I couldn't be more proud of them."

Hardin was bidding to become the fourth Class A school to win boys and girls titles in the same year and the third to do it in the same school year. The Bulldogs also did it in 1994-95.

The two teams had met Feb. 24, with Havre winning 42-34. Based on that and their scouting report, the Blue Ponies knew what was coming Saturday night in front of a nearly packed house -- especially when the Bulldogs grew desperate and forced a bushel of Havre's 21 turnovers.

"I got a little nervous, I've got to be honest," Nystrom said. "I knew they were going to be coming so I had to be ready."

And that big 3-point shot? It was the only one she attempted all night, and only her second shot of the game overall. She finished with six points, five rebounds and tireless defense.

"Holy cow, it felt right," she said of the 3-pointer. "That feeling was awesome. I took off running and I had a big smile on my face."

Sophomore guard Kyndall Keller led Havre with 12 points and Marca Herron had 11, including several big free throws late. Guard Karissa DuChane had 10 points and Aiyanna Ereaux nine for Hardin, which made seven field goals the entire game.

"It's everything for these kids," Kraske said, watching them celebrate. "We'll go in the locker room and hug it up. It's pretty special."

Columbia Falls 52, Hamilton 36

Dani Douglas was perfect with her right hand, and that's all defending state champion Columbia Falls needed to claim third place.

In her final game, Douglas was 6-for-6 from 3-point range, made her only two point shot with her dominant right hand for a game-high 20 points and surpassed 1,000 points for her career. Her only blemish? Missing a contested left-handed layup off the rim midway through the third quarter.

"I remember that one," Douglas said with a laugh after hoisting the third-place trophy to applauding C-Falls boosters.

Douglas also had six rebounds, three steals and an assist -- she would've had more were it not for a couple missed bunnies -- in a memorable sendoff for the team's only returning starter. She said her previous high for 3-pointers in a game was eight.

"Honestly, I wanted to go out with a big bang," said Douglas, who has overtures from a variety of colleges, including Ivy League schools.

Douglas was 5-for-5 from long range and added a third in the third quarter before Hamilton began shadowing her. 

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"She's more than capable of doing that," Columbia Falls coach Cary Finberg said. "She picked a pretty big stage to put on a nice show. What a way to finish her career." 

Columbia Falls led only 11-10 after a quarter but hit a rhythm in the second. After Douglas hit her third quick trey, Finberg couldn't resist directing a knowing smile at her. The Wildkats led 41-26 after three quarters and from there it was only a question of when Douglas would be subbed and get a final ovation.

As for third place a year after winning it all? Satisfying.

"It's really incredible," Douglas said. "A lot of people didn't think we'd even get to state so it's really great to get third place."

Agreed Finberg: "After all we lost for this crew to come back to Saturday night at state and get a trophy is pretty special.

Hamilton 52, Butte Central 44

Cariann Kunkel had another dominating performance with 24 points and 11 rebounds as Hamilton rallied from a seven-point halftime deficit to top Butte Central 52-44 in a loser-out game.

Kunkel had 16 of her points and nine rebounds in the second half. The Broncs outscored the Maroons 15-5 in the third quarter and took the lead for good on back-to-back 3-pointers from guard Kara Nye, the last with 2:50 showing.

The lead ballooned to as many as nine before Butte Central closed to within 40-37 on a 3-pointer by guard Tricia Joyce with 2:38 to play. But the Maroons would get no closer.

Hamilton faces Columbia Falls at 6:30 p.m. in the third-place game. Kloie Thatcher had 17 points and 10 rebounds in her final game for Butte Central, which won the state title two years ago and saw its string of three consecutive state trophies snapped.

Columbia Falls 65, Browning 47

Hannah Gedlaman had 24 oints and six rebounds, and Trista Cowan added 18 points and 14 rebounds as Columbia Falls moved into with a 65-47 win over Browning in the first loser-out game.

The defending state champion Wildkats broke to a 13-7 lead after one quarter and dominated the second-half. 

Ronnal Jordan led Browning with 13 points. Dulci Skunkcap had 12 points and seven rebounds.

Columbia Falls will face either Butte Central or Hamilton in the third-place game at 6:30 p.m. Hardin and Havre meet for the championship at 8.


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