By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsfirstname.lastname@example.org
As the end of January nears, it is time for high school basketball teams across the state to start looking ahead to the postseason.
For the Havre High girls basketball team and veteran head coach Dennis Murphy, the journey towards postseason play begins tonight in Chinook.
The Ponies (8-5) begin their push towards the Central A divisional tournament in Havre with a three-game stretch this weekend that kicks off with a visit to Chinook for a matchup with Sugarbeeters.
The Ponies will also be on the road on Friday night when they visit the Glasgow Scotties, before returning home on Saturday night for their final regular season home game against the Malta M-Ettes.
"I wouldn't say these are must-win games for us," said veteran head coach Dennis Murphy. "But they are all three very important. We are playing for seeding at the divisional tournament and every game from this point on is critical to where we end up at the end of the season."
A lot has changed since Chinook and Havre last met back on Dec. 12. At that time, Havre High was the top-ranked team in Class A basketball and the Beeters were beginning a season filled with high hopes and even higher expectations.
And while the Ponies got the better of Chinook in Havre, both teams have gone their separate ways since. Havre has played a rigorous schedule and is now unranked and in a dogfight for third place in the Central A conference standings. The Ponies are trailing Browning by two points in the "Kount" system.
Meanwhile, the Beeters are now 5-9 on the season and are looking to right the ship before the District 2B tournament, which is just a mere three weeks away.
"I am certain that Chinook had hoped to have a better record than they do right now," Murphy said. "They are a very good basketball team. They are big and athletic. But they seem to have games where they don't get very much offensive production and that has hurt them."
Offense has not been a problem for the Ponies. Havre is leading the conference in most offensive categories and possesses both the Central A's leading scorer in Jolene Fuzesy (26.0 ppg), and its leader in assists, junior Amy McLain (5.2 apg).
But Havre has struggled defensively at times, which is something Murphy has been trying to improve with each game. Murphy's defensive concerns will turn to shutting down the Beeters' inside game.
"I think that we are better defensively right now than we were a month ago," Murphy said. "It has certainly helped to play two quality teams in CMR and Lewistown. But I still think we have a ways to go to.
"Against Chinook, we need to limit their easy baskets inside," Murphy added. "They are very good at getting out in transition and getting easy layups. We are going to work really hard on defense and try to force them to beat us from the perimeter."
Murphy is also keenly aware of the intensity that goes with a Chinook/Havre game. Despite the Beeters' record, he knows that they will be well prepared for Havre's visit to their home gym.
"This is a rivalry game and there are a lot of emotions involved," Murphy said. "Chinook will be well prepared and will be excited to play us. It will be up to our kids to match that intensity."
On Friday night, Havre will head back down Highway 2 east to Glasgow. The Ponies routed the Scotties (5-9) just two weeks ago in Havre. But Murphy expects that, like Chinook, Glasgow will be much more prepared this time around.
"Glasgow is such a good defensive team that they can make things tough on us offensively," Murphy said. "I think that we may have surprised them a little with how we pressured them and forced them into so many turnovers the first time that we played them.
"That was by far our best game of the season defensively," Murphy added. "But I am sure that Glasgow will be more prepared this time and will give us a very good test on its home floor."
When Havre finally returns home on Saturday night, it will be for the final time in the regular season. Havre High will honor its two seniors, Alicia Overcast and Jolene Fuzesy. Ironically, Fuzesy's old team, the Malta M-Ettes will be the Ponies opponent on senior night.
"That is definitely interesting how that worked out," Murphy said. "I think it was different for Jolene to go back home and play in Malta. But she still has a lot of friends and relationships in Malta so I am sure it will be emotional for her."
Not only will it be emotional for Fuzesy, but for the entire Blue Pony roster. Senior night is a very special occasion at Havre High and Murphy said that there will be a lot of adversity surrounding his team on Saturday.
"This is a really tough time to play a team like Malta, but I think we need it and it will be very good for us," Murphy said. "We're honoring two great seniors in Alicia and Jolene. It will be our third game in three nights and the day after a very long road trip to Glasgow. It will be a very difficult game for us, but we should be up to the challenge."
In the first meeting between Havre and Malta, the Ponies dominated the M-Ettes (8-6) for three quarters. But Malta rallied late to cut the final deficit to a respectable 10 points.
This time Murphy expects a much closer affair because he believes that Malta seems to be peaking at the right time.
"Malta has two great players in Kelly Pankratz and Roshon Nordlund," Murphy said. "They are quick and they shoot the ball very well from the perimeter. It will be the exact opposite of what we see in Chinook and Glasgow.
"In the first game against them, it seemed like we were chasing them the entire game and trying to catch up defensively," Murphy added. "We are going to try some different things to neutralize their quickness on Saturday night and hope the results are a little better. But I think it will be a very tough game for us."
Tonight's game between Chinook and Havre will tip off at 7:30 p.m. in Chinook. The game can be heard locally on 610 KOJM-AM or 101.3 KYRK-FM Friday's contest in Glasgow will also tip off at 7:30 p.m. and can be heard on 610 KOJM-AM. Senior night at the Havre High gymnasium is set to get underway at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday night.