By George Ferguson
The Havre High girls basketball team took an important step forward when they knocked off the Malta M-Ettes last Saturday night in Malta. The Ponies offense had been struggling, especially in the first half of back-to back conference home losses.
But in Malta, Havre played a fairly complete game and HHS head coach Jason Wirt said that that was the kind of performance his team needed in order to prepare for this weekend's home stand against Central A opponents Belgrade and Livingston.
That homestand begins tonight when the Ponies (5-5, 2-3) host the Belgrade Panthers at 5:15 p.m. Havre defeated Belgrade in mid-December by 10 points, but since that time the Ponies have won just one conference game.
Their 2-3 record has them sitting in fifth place in a tie for fourth place in the standings, but according to Wirt, things really aren't as bad as they look.
"We're only one game out of second place right now," Wirt said. "So this is a pretty important weekend for us. These next two games would put us in a really good position as we get to the end of the regular season."
Tonight's tilt with the Panthers will be the first of two very tough games for Havre. Belgrade is 4-5 overall this season but because of the parity in the Central A this season, they too are still in good shape when it comes to the Central A race and divisional tournament seeding.
The Panthers are led by 6-0 junior forward Jen Smith. Smith is averaging close to 15 points per game and she is the team's leading rebounder. Smith scored 28 points in Belgrade in a 10-point loss at the hands of the Blue Ponies and Wirt said that containing Smith will be a critical component of tonight's HHS gameplan.
"We need to do a better job defensively on her (Smith)," Wirt said. "The first time we played Belgrade we shot the ball really well but we got out-rebounded terribly.
"I think Belgrade got 16 offensive rebounds in that game so that is another concern for us," he added. "Tonight, we have got to have more of an inside presence, and we have to do a better job rebounding the basketball and limiting Belgrade's second-chance opportunities."
While a win over Belgrade is important to Havre High's future, the Ponies would like nothing more than to cap off their weekend with a win over Livingston. The Runnin' Rangers surprised Havre in a 10-point win in Livingston in December.
Livingston comes into Saturday's contest at 4-5 on the season and Wirt believes that the the first game against the Rangers was night and day compared to the way his team played the night before in Belgrade. In their first meeting with the Rangers, the Ponies shot 20 percent from the field and could never find any offensive rhythm.
"We shot the ball very poorly in Livingston," Wirt said. "Obviously we have to shoot it better on Saturday.
"But I think the big key will be defensively," he added. "We didn't do a very good job containing their guards and that is an area we usually excel. We did a great job on Shannon Bosley, but we let their guards score too many points."
Bosley is Livingston's 6-3 senior center. She is averaging nearly 14 points per outing and will certainly be a critical factor in Saturday's game. The Rangers are also getting solid support from junior guard Sissy Story.
The Ponies will counter both Smith and Bosley with junior Steph Flatau, who is still averaging a double-double this season. Flatau is scoring 12 points per game and also leads Havre in rebounding, grabbing 12 boards per outing. Whitney Barnekoff is averaging around nine points per game, while Amy McLain is averaging six assists and nearly three steals per contest.
While Wirt isn't saying that this weekend presents must-win games for his team, both contests will prove important when it comes to seeding for the Central A divisional tournament next month in Belgrade.
"If we could win both of these games, it would put us in really good shape," Wirt said. "So they are important from that standpoint because winning both of these games would give us a good chance at second place in the conference."
Tonight's game between Havre and Belgrade is scheduled to tip off at 5:15 p.m. with the boys varsity game to follow. Saturday's contest between Havre High and Livingston will take place at 5:00 p.m. and all of the action will be at the Havre High gymnasium.