By Tiffany L. Rehbein
The race is on.
Four of the top five Central A teams entering the divisional tournament have 13-5 records. Two other teams have better than .500 records.
Some of the teams have not met during the regular season in head-to-head action, but that doesnt change the goals for the Havre Blue Ponies girls basketball team.
We want to make it to the next tournament and the easiest way is to win the first two games, head coach Dennis Murphy said. Murphy, in his 10th year at the helm, helped lead the Blue Ponies to their third-consecutive regular-season conference title.
This will be a great tournament, Murphy said. There is great balance in our league with six teams that have a .500 record or better.
Havre (13-5), the No. 1 seed, will face the Anaconda Copperheads (6-12) to open the evening session at the Fergus County High School gymnasium in Lewistown Thursday.
The Blue Ponies downed the Copperheads 57-45 on Sept. 4 at Lewistown in an opening-weekend game.
Senior Tiffany Shrauger netted a career-high 27 points, including six 3-pointers, and went 7-for-7 from the free throw line in the contest to lead the Blue Ponies.
On the flip side, junior Nikki Baltrusch had 10 turnovers in the contest.
A lot can change through a season, Murphy said. Nikki, shes handled the ball very well lately, and she wont turn the ball over that many times this time around.
Baltrusch leads the Central A in assists, averaging 7.7 per game.
Anaconda lost its key player Brooke Nichols to a knee injury before the midway point in the season. Since, they have been starting a young lineup, playing three freshman and a sophomore frequently.
Five-foot-10 junior Kelly Philip is the key to Anacondas offense and defense. Philip averaged 11 points and 10 rebounds throughout the regular season. She also shot 47 percent from the field and 80 percent from the free throw line for the Copperheads.
Consequently, playing sophomores does not mean a team cannot win.
The Blue Ponies start a sophomore in 5-foot-10 Jeri Matter.
Matter turned in her best offensive effort against Browning Sept. 24, when she netted a season-high 18 points. She also tallied 13 points against Eastern AA contender Great Falls High and District 2-B Chinook later in the season.
Sophomores Amy Ranes and Jayla McPherson have both started this season, and come off the bench to play tough for the Blue Ponies.
Ranes notched 10 points against Chinook Oct. 5, while McPherson tallied a season-high 15 points against Browning Oct. 29.
The winner of the Havre/Anaconda game will face the winner of the Belgrade Panthers/Fergus County Golden Eagles game, played at 8 p.m. Thursday.
This will be the most interesting game, Murphy said. Both teams are 13-5 and both entered the tournament with 41 seeding points.
Whether or not it created a slight edge, Lewistown defeated Belgrade twice during the regular season.
Playing at home has got to be a bonus for them, Murphy said about the Golden Eagles hosting the tournament, especially when youre going to take three teams to the (state) tournament.
Belgrade could pose some tough defense for the Golden Eagles. The Panthers lead the league in defensive scoring, holding their opponents to an average of 41 points per game. They have played at least six games in which they held their opponents to scores in the 20s.
To open the tournament Thursday, the second-seeded Dillon Beavers (14-4) will face Livingston (6-12) at 12:30 p.m.
Dillon, a tournament favorite, returned a state-caliber nucleus from last years team.
Lindsey Monaco leads the Beavers this season, averaging 12 points per game, shooting 46 percent from the field, 6.4 assists, and 3.8 steals. Monaco can also hit the trey, nailing 16 throughout the season, almost one per game.
Also, beyond the arc, Shana Probst and Katie Blades can hit the long shot. Probst leads the league with 31 3-pointers, however, she has the second-best percentage at 34.4.
Blades has nailed 25 on the season, the third-best in the league.
In the opening-season game, Dillon defeated Havre 61-47. Junior Alyssa Matter netted 13 points, including two 3-pointers, while Shrauger notched 10 in the game for the Blue Ponies. Havre and Livingston have not met.
At 2 p.m., the No. 3 Browning Indians (13-5) will face the sixth-seed Butte Central Maroons (9-9).
Havre defeated Browning 58-47 at Browning, and 75-46 at Havre this season. They have not met Butte Central.
We accomplished our first goal, to win the regular-season title, Murphy said. Now we go into the tournament and its nice to be playing a team weve already played.
Anaconda must be ready to handle the Blue Pony full-court pressure and suffocating defense, Murphy said.
Weve got to be able to make a basket, Murphy said. Hopefully, our defense will create some points.
The Blue Ponies will leave Havre at 7:30 a.m. Thursday en route to Lewistown.