By George Ferguson
It is a risky proposition being at the top of mountain. Realistically, there usually is no place to go but down. After winning the Central A Conference regular season title and capturing the top seed at the divisional tournament, the Havre High boys basketball team was unceremoniously knocked off the mountain top Thursday night by the eighth-seeded Livingston Runnin' Rangers, 57-54 ,in opening round action of the Central A divisional tournament in Belgrade.
The Rangers entered Thursday night's contest with just four total wins on the season, but were the beneficiaries of a 59 percent shooting night from the field as well as a swarming defense that managed to shut down the Central A's leading scorer Cory Brothers.
"We warned the kids all week that this team could not be taken lightly," said Havre High head coach Mark West. "They are a pretty good ballclub for only having won four games and they got really hot against us.
"But we still expected to come down here and win this game," West added. "So we are very disappointed and frustrated right now."
Despite the Ponies feelings of despair following Thursday night's loss, they will have no time to wallow in it. Havre drops into loser-out action today and will face the host Belgrade Panthers (10-9), who lost to Dillon in the final first round contest on Thursday night.
The Ponies also face the daunting task of trying to qualify for the state tournament via the most difficult route a team could take. Despite the devastating loss to Livingston, if the Ponies rebound to take third place they would be assured of a challenge game on Monday night, provided that Livingston does not finish in second place. The Ponies would be able to challenge any other second place team.
"The kids know this tournament is not over," West said. "We have had this happen to us all season long and we usually bounce back pretty well from bad losses."
And West would consider Thursday night's defeat a bad loss since his team held the lead through almost the entire contest.
Havre opened the contest by building a 10-4 lead and finished with a 9-4 run behind eight points from Ryan Lusin to gain a 17-12 first quarter lead. In the second quarter, the Ponies continued to maintain that lead, but a five-point spurt by the Ranger's Tom Olson that included a half-court three-pointer at the buzzer cut the deficit to four points at 29-25 at halftime.
"I thought we were playing OK at the half," West said. "But what concerned me, was that we had chances to really get a big lead and we didn't take advantage. You need to do that against a dangerous team like Livingston."
In the third quarter, the Rangers would take bold steps towards taking command of the contest by going on runs of seven and six points to take a one point lead twice in the quarter. But Havre was able to regain the lead at the end of the quarter behind two Lusin buckets in the final minute of the quarter. Lusin's final hoop gave the Ponies a 40-38 lead.
The two teams traded baskets early in the fourth quarter, but the Rangers were able to grab the lead on a Trevor Anderson jumper at the 4:43 mark and added two more unanswered scores to take a 50-47 lead. A couple of trips to the foul line helped the Rangers build the lead to 55-49 with 1:30 remaining.
Brothers cut the lead to 55-52 with a big three-pointer, but Olson answered with two free-throws in the final minute. The Ponies had three opportunities in the final twenty seconds to tie the contest but missed on all three three-point shots.
"I think in the second half we were too impatient offensively," West said. "And we made a lot of mistakes on the defensive end of the floor. But you have to give them credit. They shot the ball extremely well and they got hot at the right time."
Tom Olson led the way for the Rangers with a game-high 23 points and Jeff Hesen added 17. The Ponies got 20 points from Ryan Lusin and 14 from Cory Brothers.
The Rangers (5-14) will now advance to tonight's second semifinal where they will face the Dillon Beavers. Lewistown and Browning will square off in the other semi.
Havre will now have to face the host Panthers, which is another scary proposition, according to West.
"No one wants to have to play Belgrade in this tournament because they are at home," West said. "But we beat them in December and we have to believe that if we play well we can do it again. The good thing is that they don't have time to really prepare a junk defense for Cory (Brothers)."
The game between Belgrade and Havre is scheduled to tipoff at 1 p.m. today at the Belgrade Special Events Center. That game can be heard locally on 610 KOJM-AM.