By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsemail@example.com
The Harlem boys basketball team has been to the Class B state basketball tournament for three straight years. While Harlem head coach Kyle Bigby admits that none of three previous divisional tournaments have been easy, he knows that getting to state in 2004 will be his team's most difficult venture yet.
The Wildcats will open the North-East B divisional tournament today in Malta against District 1B foe Fairfield.
"It is going to be a dogfight to get out of the divisional tournament," Bigby said. "There are a lot of great teams in this tournament and there will be no easy games for anyone this weekend."
To say that the 2004 Northeast B divisional is deep this season would be more than a slight understatement.
The tournament features the two-time defending state champion Cut Bank Wolves (21-0), who are undefeated on the season and have been ranked No. 1 in Class B from the beginning of season.
The Wolves cruised to their third straight District 1B title last weekend in Shelby. Joining Cut Bank from the 1B are the powerful Fairfield Eagles, who have been ranked in the top five all season long.
Fairfield presents a difficult challenge for Harlem in the first round. Conrad (15-6) and Fort Benton (14-8) also come out of the 1B district tournament. All four 1B teams are expected to contend for the three state tournament berths that will be up for grabs this weekend.
While the 1B District tournament produced a who's who of Class B basketball powers for this week's tournament, District 2B is far from chopped liver.
Glasgow (17-3) edged Harlem for the District 2B title last weekend in Wolf Point and the Scotties bring one of the most athletic and talented teams to the tournament, led by guards Glen Bratz and Randy Elletson.
But the Scotties can go inside as well as6-8 center Nate Barstad figures to present a lot of challenges for opposing teams.
The Wildcats (15-6) are also putting together a stretch of good basketball at the right time, according to Bigby. Harlem lost several key players from last season's team, which finished second at the divisional tournament and third at the Class B state tournament.
But Harlem has finally found continuity, led by seniors Jim Kennedy and Ben Carrywater. A strong supporting cast led by sharpshooting sophomore Jordan Mount has also helped Harlem to become a state tournament contender yet again.
"I think we are playing really good basketball right now," Bigby said. "We played pretty well at the district tournament, but we need to shoot the ball a little better this week. If we are going to have a shot at going to state, we have to get our shooting percentage up to 50 percent from the field."
The Poplar Indians could be the wildcard in the whole equation this weekend. Poplar (12-9) is a sophomore-oriented team that many people believe are a year away from being very good. But the Indians have made significant strides this year and their athleticism could present troubles for teams.
As for today's first-round game between Fairfield and Harlem, Bigby said that his team is a good fit to play the Eagles in the first round, but that it will be a game that could go right down to the wire.
"We match up really well with Fairfield," Bigby said. "Neither team is very big, but we are both productive inside. The key for us will be to control the boards and get our transition game going.
"If we can push the ball up the floor and control the tempo, we will have a good chance in this game."
Play will tip off this afternoon with Cut Bank taking on Plentywood at 1 p.m. Harlem and Fairfield will tip off at 2:30 p.m. The night session will get underway at 6:30 p.m. with Glasgow squaring off against Fort Benton. The nightcap will feature Poplar taking on Conrad. The tournament will run through Saturday night and the top three teams will advance to next weeks Class B state tournament in Butte