By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sports/ firstname.lastname@example.org
Every weekend in the season is a cause for stress for a high school basketball coach.
But this weekend is one that makes even veteran Havre High girls basketball coach Dennis Murphy age a little faster than usual. It is mainly because his Blue Ponies are preparing to take on the third-ranked teams in both Class AA and A on consecutive nights.
While most coaches would love to prolong the agony, Murphy is actually looking forward to the weekend. He isn't the only one. His team is also excited as it prepares to travel to Great Falls on Friday to do battle with the CMR Lady Rustlers at 7:30 p.m. Havre will then turn around and host the Lewistown Eagles Saturday at 4 p.m.
"This is a tremendous challenge for our team," Murphy said. "We are excited and pretty fired up to get on the floor and play these games against two quality opponents."
The Ponies (8-3) come into Friday's contest with the Rustlers (8-1) fresh off of two blowout home wins over Harlem and Glasgow. To say that the matchup with the Rustlers is a step up in competition would be the understatement of the century.
"Other than Billings West, I don't think there is another team out there that is playing better basketball than CMR right now," Murphy said. "They are having a tremendous season. They will be a load for us to handle again on Friday night."
In the first meeting between the two schools, the Rustlers earned a hard-fought 71-53 win over the Ponies. Havre kept the game close until the fourth quarter, but could never really find an answer for center Joslyn Swartz, who scored a game-high 24 points as a part of a double-double on the night. The Rustlers also got a quiet 19 points from fellow forward Erin Goodman. Once again, the Rustlers' size inside is Murphy's main concern.
"They key for us is not to give up too many points in the paint," Murphy said. "Swartz had a great game against us, but I would like to think that our post defense has gotten a lot better since the last time we played them.
"We need to make them beat us from the perimeter," Murphy added. "Overall, our defense will be the key to this game. We can't afford to give up another 71 points."
On Saturday the Ponies will play a special 4 p.m. game against the No. 3 Lewistown Eagles (11-2). The start time is due to the Havre High and MSU-Northern wrestling duals that will be held at the Havre High gymnasium on Saturday night.
As important as Friday's road matchup with the Rustlers is, the game with the Eagles is equally important, according to Murphy.
Havre is currently in third place in the Central A standings, but the Ponies are eight points behind the Eagles in the "Kount" system standings. Also, Havre is just two points ahead of Browning and four points ahead of Butte Central. That means that seeding for the Central A divisional tournament next month in Havre is still wide open. A win over the rival Eagles would go a long way to improve the Ponies' position in the standings.
"First off, we want to always protect our home court no matter who we play," Murphy said. "But we would really like to pick up a win against one of these two teams this weekend, and Lewistown is a big rivalry game for us."
The rivalry that Murphy spoke of has been somewhat one-sided over the last few seasons. The Eagles crushed Havre 65-45 in Lewistown back in December. It was the only game this season in which Murphy felt that his team was completely outplayed by an opponent.
In the first meeting, the Eagles raced out to a 15-4 lead and never looked back. Havre was plagued by turnovers and a lack of consistent defense in the second half.
"Turnovers killed us the first time we played them," Murphy said. "I am sure that (Lewistown) will try to force us to run and get ahead of ourselves again this time.
"The thing is, we want to push the ball and get out in transition," Murphy added. "But we have do it under control. We can't turn the ball over and we can't force bad shots."
Stopping the Eagles trio of potential all-state players led by Lesly Richter is another concern to Murphy. However, he said that if the Ponies execute their offense and take care of the basketball, they should find success on Saturday.
"We are playing much better defensively than we were in December," Murphy said. "The key to this game will be handling their pressure and not making mistakes. If we can do that and our offense is clicking, then it should be a really good ball game."
Friday night's game between CMR and Havre is set to tip off at 7:30 p.m. at the CM Russell Fieldhouse in Great Falls. Saturday's game between the Ponies and Eagles will get underway at 4 p.m. at the Havre High gymnasium.