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Down to state: Pony girls trip Rangers

 

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Rebounding seems like such a simple thing in basketball. But it's not a little thing, and what Havre High junior forward Paighton Gilman did on Monday night was no small feat either — nor was that of her Blue Pony team. With under 30 seconds left in the game, and her team trailing by one point, Gilman grabbed perhaps the biggest offensive rebound in recent Blue Pony history, then put it back in for two points. The board and score was the game-winning basket in Havre High's 38-37 Central A challenge game triumph over heavily-favored Livingston Monday night at the CMR Fieldhouse in Great Falls. The Pony victory vaults them into their fourth straight Class A state tournament. The state tourney begins next week in Hamilton. "It was the right place at the right time," Gilman said after a jubilant HHS celebration. "It's hard to explain. It just takes confidence and focus, and I was ready for that play." And the Blue Ponies were ready for the Rangers, who entered the Central A tournament 17-1 on the season, but left with two straight losses. Still, for all the heroics at the end, the Rangers had three chances to steal the show. HHS survived two nearly pointblank misses by Livingston in the final 17 seconds. Then, the Rangers got one more shot with three seconds to play, but that shot missed too, giving the Ponies a remarkable win considering they trailed 23-13 at halftime and 27-15 with 4:54 left in the third quarter. "It shows a tremendous amount of character by these kids and I'm just so proud of them," HHS head coach Dustin Kraske said. "But that's how they've been. In the time outs at the end of the game, you have Cassi Darrah talking to all of the kids, Cali Freier talking, Hayley Donovan talking. There's just a lot of trust on this team. And at the end of the game, they trusted each other, they were so active on defense, hands up and they went after each play. And we got the stops when we needed them most." And Havre needed plenty of them, not just in the final seconds. The Ponies started a 12-0 run with a Darrah 3-pointer late in the third quarter, and by the time Gilman hit a bucket inside with 5:38 left in the game, the Ponies had their first lead at 33-31. Then HHS had to survive a run by Livingston's Mia Meyer, as she scored eight of the next 10 points to put the Rangers back in front. But another three by Darrah brought Havre to within one point at 37-36 and a huge save by Freier as a ball was going out of bounds wound up giving the Ponies one final chance to overcome a lot of adversity. But overcoming that adversity has summed up HHS's season. The Ponies did it Monday night and they did all season, overcoming a 2-7 start to their season. "After the first half of the season, it would have been easy for them to say, we're not going to work hard anymore or believe anymore," Kraske said. "But they kept believing in what we were doing, where we were going and they stuck with it. We had to overcome a lot of adversity, some with each other at times this season, but they kept believing and trusting in each other. They never lost that belief, and I'm proud of them for that. And through all of that, they've turned into a fine basketball team that will play hard and represent our conference very well at state. And I'm really proud of them." Darrah scored 13 points and Gilman added 12 for HHS on Monday night. Darrah also poured in three treys and Donovan grabbed a game-high 15 boards. Livingston got 16 points from Meyer in the loss. With the win the Ponies improved to 11-11 on the season and will now have a week to prepare for the Class A state tournament, which begins March 11 in Hamilton. HHS plays Anaconda in the first round. "We just believed in each other as a team," Gilman said. "We had our ups and downs this season, but we were confident as a team and we just really played together."

 
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