By Kim Staudinger
The Ponies trip to the divisional tournament started as planned with a big win Thursday night over Livingston. The rest of the tournament, however, did not finish the way Pony fans hoped.
Poor shooting by the Ponies and new defensive strategies enacted by the opposition were just the beginning of Havre's tournament woes.
Overall, the Ponies shot an average of 32 percent from the field for the tournament, while their opponents shot 38 percent. Another factor against the Ponies was not shooting nearly as many free throws as they usually do. Havre shot only 21 free throws throughout the entire tournament only four Friday night against Lewistown and two Saturday morning against Browning.
Murphy attributed the Ponies' scarce free throw attempts to lack of aggressiveness displayed by his team.
"We're not a penetration type of team," Murphy said. "We don't attack the basket."
Having only played the Ponies in the season-opening Tip-Off Tournament, Livingston was at a disadvantage in not knowing how to control Havre. Regardless, the Rangers nearly came away with the win.
With 20.8 seconds remaining in the game, Jayla McPherson made two free throws to put Havre up 43-41. Livingston got the ball and was able to set up a play for a potential game-tying shot. Livingston got the shot off, but missed and Carrie Flatau came down with the rebound. Flatau was fouled with 4.5 seconds left and went to the free-throw line.
Flatau missed her shot and the Rangers quickly grabbed the rebound, but could not get a shot off before time expired.
"We didn't play well against Livingston," Murphy said. "Livingston only shot 22 percent and we only win by two late in the game. You know we aren't doing things well either. We missed a lot of opportunities."
But, a win is a win and the Ponies advanced to play Friday night against Lewistown, the game Murphy looked forward to going into the tournament. However, Fergus coach Ron Miller took a different defensive approach to the game, catching Havre somewhat off guard.
Knowing the Ponies relied heavily on their inside players to score, Fergus came in playing a sagging-man defense, forcing the perimeter shooters to score.
"They forced us to shoot from the perimeter, knowing perimeter shooting had been an Achilles heel for us all year," Murphy said. "Fergus played real well. It was the best they played against us all year. They didn't make very many mistakes and prepared very well for us."
Due heavily in part to the sagging-man defense, senior Jayla McPherson experienced something she hadn't seen all year.
"Fergus wouldn't give our post players a tip. Jayla did not get a simple shot against them," Murphy said, mentioning McPherson was often triple-teamed. "She just didn't get to touch the ball very often."
Noting the success Fergus had with a very similar 2-3 zone defense, again forcing the Ponies to take shots from outside their comfort zone.
"Browning out played us," Murphy said, noting one of the Browning assistant coaches told him after the game that it was the best they had played all season. "They came out and forced us to shoot from the perimeter and it came up to bite us again. We weren't able to create many scoring opportunities."
Although the Ponies defeated Browning both times they faced them during the regular season, Murphy said the difference between those two games and this game was the free-throw shooting.
"We shoot 20 free throws in both of the other games. This game we shot two. If they don't put us at the line those other two games, we don't win."
With the loss Saturday morning to Browning, the Ponies' season ended for the second straight year without a trip to the state tournament.
"To qualify for the next level, you have to play your best," Murphy said. "We didn't play our best basketball. Tournaments usually establish who's the best for the weekend, not for the year. The three best teams from this weekend are going on."
When asked if Murphy thought his team is as good, if not better, than Livingston, who will advance to the state tournament, despite losing to the Ponies, Murphy said yes, but said they did something the Ponies could not.
"Do I think we are as good as Livingston, yes," he said. "But you have to give Livingston credit. They won three games, which we knew we would have to do coming into the tournament if we wanted to go to state. They could have easily bowed out after losing to us, but they didn't."
Summarizing the season overall for the Ponies, Murphy once again mentioned the inconsistencies in his team.
"It was a lot bumpier road than we've had in the past," he said. "It was a really inconsistent season. We didn't show the type of growth, the gradual growth, we should have. We hit peaks and valleys. We had some big wins against Browning and Malta, then we drop again."
Unfortunately for the Ponies, they hit a valley at the wrong time right before leaving for the divisional tournament.