By Ryan Divish/Havre Daily News Sports Editoremail@example.com
BELGRADE - Those weren't butterflies floating around in the stomachs of the Havre High boys basketball team. They felt more like sparrows.
With not one player on the team having any state tournament experience, the Ponies had every right to be nervous when they opened Thursday's Class A State basketball tournament in Belgrade. And they played like it early on.
However, thanks to a stifling pressure defense and a rejuvenated offense, the Ponies rallied for a 69-61 win.
Havre showed plenty of jitters early on, missing easy shots, making unforced turnovers and looking downright uncomfortable in its opening game. The Ponies' first six possessions yielded nary a point despite players having attempts from point-blank range.
Even a blind man could see the Ponies were tight.
"You could tell they were nervous," Havre head coach Mark West said. "You just don't see us miss four or five in a row from right underneath the basket."
One of the players who missed some of those early shots, Tyler Hedalen, echoed West's sentiments.
"I was really nervous," Hedalen said. "This is the first time that anyone on our team has been in this situation before. It's a pretty intimidating environment."
While Havre's play was anxious and tense, Columbia Falls' was anything but. The Wildkats jumped out to a 7-0 lead before the Ponies could get comfortable. A pair of Trent Normandy baskets got Havre on the board. But the first quarter belonged to the Wildkats, as Drew Perry and David Ramsey combined to score 14 of Columbia Falls' 20 first-quarter points.
"You have to give credit to Columbia Falls," West said. "They were in the state tournament last year and they came out poised right away."
Columbia Falls continued to pour it on as J.D. Fields came off the bench to score 11 straight points to open the second quarter. Fields' three-pointer at the 4:48 mark gave Columbia Falls a 31-16 lead.
Havre finally started to get going offensively as Cory Brothers scored inside and Patrick Wirtzberger made a nice pass to Jared Weigel for back-to-back scores for the first time in the game with three minutes left in the half.
A Wirtzberger three-pointer and a Marc Mariani steal and a layup trimmed Columbia Falls' lead to 37-26 at the half.
The first half couldn't have gone much worse for the Ponies. Havre shot an icy 37 percent from the field and committed seven turnovers. Columbia Falls also turned the ball over seven times, but the Wildkats shot a blistering 67 percent from the field including 5 of 7 from three-point range.
"We just started off terrible," Mariani said. "We were getting the shots we wanted but nothing was falling. And it didn't help that they were finding every open guy and hitting every shot. Our goal was to get their lead to single digits in the third quarter."
The Ponies did exactly that by using a mixture of full-court and half-court pressure that flustered and frustrated Columbia Falls into turnovers while basically disrupting its offensive rhythm.
"We saw at the end of the first half that the full-court pressure bothered them," West said. "We came out in the second half and used it early on and got some turnovers. It got the kids excited and the momentum shifted a little."
The shift didn't happen right away; it was more gradual, as Brothers opened the second half with a dunk off a Mariani steal and Weigel scored inside. Havre cut the lead to 42-38 as Mariani found Hedalen inside, and Brothers sank a three-pointer and picked up a steal and a layup.
Columbia Falls still hung tough with a 7-2 burst to end the quarter with a 49-40 lead.
"It seemed like everything we did, they answered, and we never really got a basket when we needed," West said.
But in the fourth quarter, Havre simply wouldn't be denied as it continued to pressure and get turnovers. Wirtzberger knocked down a clutch three-pointer and Hedalen really got going, converting a pair of three-point plays, the second of which gave Havre its first lead at 59-57.
The Wildkats immediately answered with a pair of free throws, but a tough reverse layup from Brothers and a putback off his own miss gave the Ponies the lead for good. Havre iced the game away at the free-throw line and Hedalen added a putback for good measure.
"We played extremely hard defensively in the second half," West said. "Our pressure was the key. It forced them into some turnovers, which got our offense going."
Said Hedalen: "We like to get out in transition and our defense really helped us. You could tell they were getting frustrated."
Havre forced Columbia Falls into 14 second-half turnovers and 35 percent shooting from the field. Havre scored 22 points off of turnovers and shot 50 percent from the field.
Brothers finished with a game-high 18 points, but he was a little out of sync, committing five turnovers and missing several wide-open looks.
"I think Cory was pretty nervous," West said. "He puts a lot of pressure on himself and this being his first state tournament game, he really wanted to do well. But he played hard even if shots weren't falling."
Mariani and Hedalen had scintillating second-half performances. Mariani had six assists and five steals in the second half to go with 12 points and eight rebounds.
"Marc really played a good game," West said. "Sometimes he gets going a hundred miles an hour, but he really kept his head in the game and played well."
Hedalen scored all 14 of his points in the second half and pulled down a game-high 10 rebounds.
"It always gets a little easier after you make that first one," he said. "I just would have liked to have made that first one in the first half."
Havre will face Libby in tonight's semifinal. The Loggers pulled away from Sidney in the fourth quarter to grab a 60-48 win.
"Hopefully, we can take how we played in the second half and carry it over tomorrow night," Hedalen said.
Said West: "I would think our tournament jitters are out of us and we'll come out and play more relaxed to start the game."
HAVRE 69, COLUMBIA FALLS 61
Columbia Falls 20 17 12 12 - 61
Havre 12 14 12 31 - 69
Columbia Falls - J.D. Fields 5-7 1-1 14; Drew Perry 7-9 0-0 14; Brad Bennett 0-3 2-2 2; David Ramsey 5-16 2-3 15; Ty Mikkelson 1-1 2-2 4; Justin Kennedy 1-2 0-0 2; Anthony Minson 3-5 0-0 6. Totals: 23-45 9-10 61.
Havre - Patrick Wirtzberger 3-4 0-0 8; Marc Mariani 3-5 5-9 12; Trent Normandy 2-4 0-0 4; Cory Brothers 7-18 3-5 18; Gary Wagner 0-0 1-2 1; Jeremy Giardina 0-1 3-4 3; Tyler Hedalen 5-13 4-4 14; Bret Magelssen 1-2 0-0 2; Jared Weigel 3-8 0-0 7. Totals: 24-55 16-24 69.
Three-point goals - COL 6-14 (Fields 3-5, Bennett 0-2, Ramsey 3-7); HAV 5-16 (Wirtzberger 2-2, Mariani 1-2, Normandy 0-1, Brothers 1-8, Giardina 0-1, Weigel 1-2). Rebounds - COL 24 (Ramsey 5); HAV 31 (Hedalen 10). Assists - COL 15 (Bennett 7); HAV 14 (Mariani 6). Turnovers - COL 21, HAV 18. Totals fouls - COL 17, HAV 15. Fouled out - none.
Libby 60, Sidney 48
BELGRADE - Libby made 18-of-24 free throws to Sidney's 1-5 en route to a 60-48 victory in the State A basketball tournament on Thursday.
Kyle Stantus led the Loggers with 24 points and 15 rebounds in the victory.
Jace Sullivan led the Eagles with 15 points on 5-10 shooting from 3-point land.
Libby advances to play Havre at 7 p.m. tonight. Sidney plays Columbia Falls in the loser-out bracket at 1 p.m.
Sidney 16 7 7 18 -48
Libby 14 14 12 18 -60
SIDNEY - Matt Weber 0 0-1 0, Alex Durham 3 1-2 7, Jace Sullivan 5 0-0 15, Nelson Hilger 5 0-0 12, Jeff Stedham 3 0-0 8, Cole Prevost 1 0-2 2, L.J. Ault, Terran Hillesland 1 0-0 2, James Beyer 1 0-0 2. Totals 19 1-5 48.
LIBBY - Aaron Suton 4 1-2, Brady Turk 1 2-2 4, Jake Swartzendruber 2 8-11 13, Chris McElmurry 0 0-0 0, Kyle Stantus 7 7-9 24, Vance Vincent 1 0-1 2, Mitch Mohr 1 0-0 3, George Mercer 0 0-0 0, Blaine Baker 2 0-0 4. Totals 18 18-24 60.
3-point goals - Sullivan 5, Stantus 3, Hilger 2, Stedham 2, Suton, Swartzendruber, Mohr. Total fouls - Sidney 22, Libby 11. Fouled out - none. Technicals - none.