It is because of these moments that we love high school basketball. This is how championship games are scripted in Hollywood.
The Columbia Falls Wildkats pulled out a dramatic 55-53 overtime win over Bigfork on Saturday night to win the Northwestern A girls divisional basketball tournament at Glacier High School. The win gave the town of Columbia Falls two conference champions in one evening. Two hours earlier, the boys defeated Polson 64-45 to take the league title.
For much of the first half, the top-seeded Wildkats dictated the tempo of the game and took a comfortable 23-15 lead into halftime. Then with 5:09 left in the third quarter, Roxy Thurman, Bigfork’s senior leader and top scorer, went down hard on her side and left the game.
But led by a fearless sophomore guard tandem – Mallery Knoll and Caitlin Charlebois – the third-seeded Valkyries matched every rally the Wildkats threw at them and found themselves down only 36-30 at the end of the third quarter.
When the whistle blew for the start of the final period, Thurman was back on the floor. And that’s when she took over the game in a fashion rarely seen in high school basketball – she did it on defense.
Thurman, the league leader in steals at nearly four per game, harassed Columbia Falls’ backcourt and formed a one-person press throughout the quarter. Knoll and Charlebois took their cues from Thurman and heightened their defensive intensity.
Flying around off the ball and smothering the opposing guards when they had the ball, Thurman recorded three straight steals in a 20-second span beginning at the two-minute mark. When she started her defensive onslaught, Bigfork was down 45-42. Half a minute later, the game was tied at 45.
Then with 50 seconds left, Knoll stole the ball, weaved the length of the court and set herself up for a good look at the basket, but missed the layup. Thurman missed a putback, but Knoll was right there for another offensive rebound. She was fouled and hit one free throw to give Bigfork a 46-45 lead with 38.9 seconds remaining.
It was Bigfork’s first lead of the game.
The next time down the court for Columbia Falls, senior point guard Alyssa Ladenburg found sophomore Kayla DeWit for an open layup that would have given her team the lead with around 30 seconds left. But DeWit missed and the Wildkats were forced to foul Thurman with 19.6 seconds remaining.
But Thurman missed both free throws and Ladenburg, fouled on a drive to the basket, sank one of two free throws to tie the game. On an offensive rebound by Kayla’s older sister Kelsey DeWit, Ladenburg got one more chance to win the game, but her 18-foot jumper went halfway down before rimming out.
The game went to overtime tied at 46.
The teams traded scores in the four-minute overtime, with Bigfork taking a 49-48 lead on a Charlebois free throw with 2:02 on the clock. On the next Columbia Falls possession, the older DeWit grabbed an offensive rebound and scored to give the Wildkats the lead back. Thirty seconds later, the younger DeWit hit a 14-foot jumper to give Columbia Falls a 52-49 advantage.
Knoll then scored at the 59-second mark to pull Bigfork within one. Kelsey DeWit was subsequently fouled by Thurman with 32 ticks left on the clock. It was Thurman’s fifth foul. DeWit, a junior, knocked down one of the two free throws. Off the rebound, Bigfork quickly set up its offense on the other side of the court. Again, Knoll came up with a clutch shot and tied the game at 53 with less than 15 seconds left.
Following a timeout, Ladenburg, a senior who remained composed throughout the frenetic final minutes, drove the length of the court and found Kelsey DeWit on a pretty pass under the basket. DeWit was fouled with 3.6 seconds remaining.
With a rowdy Bigfork crowd screaming from both sides of the gymnasium, DeWit calmly sank both free throws. A desperation three-pointer from halfcourt by Charlebois fell just short and the final buzzer sounded with Columbia Falls celebrating a 55-53 victory.
The Wildkats finished the season with an 11-1 conference record. Columbia Falls will go to the state tournament in Butte on March 5-7. Bigfork, the defending conference champion, will play a challenge game against Polson at 7:30 p.m. on Monday night to decide which of the two teams goes to state.
The older DeWit scored a game-high 23 points, while her younger sister chipped in 14. Thurman led the Vals with 14 points. Knoll scored 13 and Charlebois finished with 12.
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