As one of nine seniors on the Flathead Bravettes who have played basketball together for years, Meghan O’Connell knows what to expect from this year’s Class AA state tournament in Great Falls.
“I think state is going to be the best time of our lives,” O’Connell said.
With that sentiment in mind, the Bravettes kick off the state tourney on March 6 at 10:30 a.m. against a tough first-round opponent, Eastern AA’s No. 1 seed Butte High. At 19-1, Butte has the best record in the state. Flathead is Western AA’s No. 4 seed.
The Bravettes, 13-8 (8-5), enter the tournament playing their best basketball. On March 1, in a divisional contest against Missoula Hellgate with a state tournament berth on the line, the Bravettes played what O’Connell called their best game of the season, knocking off the Knights 62-44.
“The big difference for that game was that we finally believed in ourselves,” O’Connell said. “We finally believed we could win no matter who we were playing.”
Coach Kim Elliot was also impressed with how the Bravettes closed out the season. He said that’s why he likes playing a divisional game, as opposed to getting a bye. The No. 1 seeds – Missoula Big Sky in the west and Butte in the east – didn’t play over the weekend, which can lead to a little rustiness.
“We’re primed, we’re ready to go,” Elliot said. “We were a lot smarter on Saturday with each possession, taking care of the ball, less turnovers. If we do that, we don’t put the ball in Butte’s hands – or any team’s – and you’ll come out all right.”
Butte, even with its week off, is a well-oiled machine that probably doesn’t rust easily. The Lady Bulldogs rank near the top of most statistical categories in the state. Elliot said they are athletic and can play almost any style of basketball. He uses two words to describe them: tall and fast.
“They play well together and they’ve got a bunch of seniors like us,” he said. “It’s going to be a great challenge for us. But that’s what we want. We want the best, first.”
Butte ranks second in the state in scoring at 58.7 points per game, but Flathead is a close third at 58.5, with statistics based on AA games only. But the Lady Bulldogs have a far stingier defense, allowing only 43.3 points per game compared to Flathead’s 53.1. The Bravettes, however, lead the state in steals at 14.8 per game, led by O’Connell’s league-leading 3.75.
While O’Connell runs the potent Bravette offense from the point guard position, fellow senior Kendalyn Habel often shoulders much of the scoring load. Habel averaged 18.6 points per game during the regular season, second in the state. Habel also placed in the top five in rebounding at 8.3. O’Connell wrapped up the regular season ranked No. 1 in Western AA in free-throw percentage at 87 percent and No. 4 in assists at 3.1.
With O’Connell and Habel leading the attack, and Ally Krautbauer and Kaylyn Heaton providing consistent scoring support, the Bravettes will look to run throughout the tournament, as they have done in the regular season.
“The key is to make them play our game, to make them play our tempo and don’t let them set the tempo,” O’Connell said.
The Bravettes are the only AA team from the Flathead headed to state this year. Their male counterparts, the Braves, failed to make the state tourney when they lost to Missoula Big Sky 76-71 in divisionals on March 1. The Braves finished with a 15-6 (7-6) record. Glacier High’s girls and boys teams, in their inaugural seasons, each lost their divisional match-ups as well. Glacier boys finished 3-18 (0-13) and the girls were 1-20 (0-13).
O’Connell said the Bravettes are ready for the tourney and, furthermore, the seniors are ready to close out their high school careers in style – they want to improve on last year’s third-place showing at state.
“It’s so much fun,” O’Connell said. “It’s such a special team. You have so many seniors and everybody has the same goal – there’s a special bond.”
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