By George Ferguson
Seniors are meant to step up in big high school basketball games, especially on senior night. So when Havre High senior Justin Kegel calmly drilled two free throws to put his team into a 56-56 tie with :24 remaining against Browning Friday night, it wasn't too surprising.
"I knew Justin would make those free throws," said Havre head coach Mark West. "He loves those situations and I knew he could handle it."
Kegel's clutch free throws were then followed by a wild final 20 seconds that saw the Ponies pull out a 59-56 dramatic win over the third-ranked Indians in their final game of the season at the Havre High gymnasium.
"I wasn't nervous at all," Kegel said of his two foul shots. "I just took a deep breath and stepped up there and made them both."
After Kegel's free throws, the Indians raced down the floor with the game tied and threw the ball away. Browning head coach Ray Augare argued that the ball was touched by a Havre defender and ended up being called for a technical foul. Cory Brothers sank the ensuing two free throws to give the Ponies a 58-56 lead and the ball. Browning immediately fouled senior Steve Heberly, who made one of two foul shots. Browning missed a final three-point attempt at the buzzer, giving Havre a critical Central A Conference win.
The win on senior night over the two-time defending state champion Indians left the Havre seniors and West feeling very exuberant afterward.
"It was nice to get this win for our seniors," West said. "Those guys all deserved to go out with a win at home and they all stepped up and got the job done tonight."
"This game was awesome tonight," said senior Curt Leeds. "The seniors kind of led the way tonight, but the whole team really played together and we showed a lot to come back and win."
Said Kegel: "This is our first three- game winning streak in a long time. I think we are really starting to gel as a team and we're playing well and it is a lot of fun right now."
The contest started off with a 7-0 run by Havre behind two quick buckets by senior Ryan Lusin. Browning answered with a 7-0 run in the middle of the period, but the Ponies finished strong with a Trent Normandy three-pointer and a Leeds steal that was converted into an easy transition basket to give the Ponies a 19-15 lead after one period.
The pace slowed down a little in the second period, but the Ponies ended the half on a 6-0 run to maintain their three- point lead, 29-26. Lusin had nine points at the half, and getting him going early has been a key factor in Havre's recent success, according to West.
"Ryan has been really playing well lately and we needed that," West said. "His teammates have recognized his post presence and they are getting him the ball. He is making it happen right now."
Lusin stayed hot in the third period, but Browning's Karl Ingraham scored nine points in the period and the Indians outscored Havre 14-11 to tie the game at 40 apiece after three quarters.
The fourth quarter saw the Ponies appear to take the game by the throat as they went on an 11-0 run sparked by eight points from Brothers. But Lusin fouled out with five minutes remaining and the Indians went on an 11-2 run to take a 55-53 lead with less than a minute to play.
West likes what is happening to his team.
"I think it all comes down to the fact that the kids are really playing together right now," West said. "They are accepting their roles and everybody is contributing to this run we're on."
Said Heberly: "I think we're playing together much better right now. We're getting more balanced scoring and the whole team is just clicking. It has made us a much better team than we were earlier in the season."
The Ponies' balanced attack included 17 points apiece from Lusin and Brothers. Leeds added 10 points. The Indians got a game-high 22 points, including three three-pointers, from Ingraham. Kellen Hall added 10 points for Browning.
The Ponies improved their record to 8-7 this season and have just three games left. The three-game winning streak has moved them into third place in the Central A Conference standings.
Havre will travel to Chinook on Tuesday night to take on the rival Beeters and then travel to Class AA Great Falls High on Friday night for the Ole Goat game.