In Columbia Falls, State Championship Hopes Abound

By Beacon Staff

From the opening tip, it seemed as if the divisional tournament belonged to Columbia Falls. It felt right.

The Wildcats’ fans were the loudest and most inspired. Their inspiration was rooted in a cause far more meaningful than winning a basketball game. By the hundreds, they came to Glacier High School decked out in “Finny” shirts, commemorating a man who needs only one name, and a nickname at that.

From the players to the coaches to the fans, it was clear the tournament had been dedicated to Craig “Finny” Finberg, the legendary Columbia Falls high school basketball player who later established himself as one of the greatest names in Montana State University basketball history as well as one of the most distinguished coaching figures in the state’s high school hoops lore.

In January, Finny was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Since then, he has been undergoing treatment and people across the state, especially in Columbia Falls, have come out in droves to show their support.

The image of hundreds of fans in their “Finny” shirts jumping out of their seats after they just witnessed their town’s second conference championship in one evening is a snapshot of genuine triumph. For those who were there and took a second to observe the crowd – in addition to the girls who had seconds earlier orchestrated a remarkable 55-53 overtime victory – the image will likely find a permanent home inside their memory.

For the girls, it was their first conference title since 1996, back when the conference was still simply Western A. They entered the tournament with a 9-1 league record and the top seed. They were the team to beat and Bigfork almost did it in the title game, but it wasn’t in the cards for the resilient Valkyries. Columbia Falls had beaten Whitefish 54-33 in the semifinals to advance to the championship.

In the title game, Columbia Falls jumped out to an 11-1 lead over the Valkyries and it appeared the No. 1 seed was gearing up for a blowout. But Bigfork, led by senior leader Roxy Thurman, playing through injuries, and a tenacious sophomore tandem of Mallery Knoll and Caitlin Charlebois, had no intentions of giving up its crown. The Vals were the conference champions last year.

For three quarters, the Valkyries battled until they took their first lead – 46-45 – in the final minute of the fourth quarter. The shift in momentum could have taken the wind out of Columbia Falls’ sails, but the talented Wildkats were far from done. It seems fitting that during pre-game warm-ups they had donned the same Finny shirts that were so prevalent in the crowd. The backs of the shirts say “Finny” and the fronts say: “Don’t give up, don’t ever give up.”

With 11.8 seconds on the clock, Columbia Falls senior star Alyssa Ladenburg hit a free throw to tie the game up at 46-46. Following an offensive rebound, Ladenburg had one more chance to win the game, but her long jumper went halfway down before rimming out.

In overtime, the game see-sawed back and forth before junior Kelsey DeWit stepped up to the free-throw line with the game tied and 3.6 seconds remaining. DeWit calmly knocked down both clutch free throws, capping off a remarkable game in which she scored a game-high 23 points. Her younger sister, Kayla, had 14. The Wildkats won 55-53.

Two hours earlier, the boys had just wrapped up another conference crown to add to their storied history. It was the first, however, in the past two years. In fact, the Wildcats hadn’t even made it to a state tournament for two seasons, a veritable drought for a team that won three out of four state championships between 2003 and 2006.

For the Wildcats, it starts with head coach Cary Finberg, the younger brother of Finny. Like his brother, Cary is known as a coaching mastermind. Over the years, he has harnessed tremendous individual talent into seamless teamwork and developed young backyard hoops hobbyists into state champions. It is evident that his players believe in him.

Under Finberg, the Wildcats play clinical basketball. They swarm on defense, trapping hard on the sidelines and efficiently patrolling the passing lanes. They don’t give up second-chance points and they secure their rebounds with two hands.

On offense they pick apart defenses with passing until an opening shows itself. Then they put down two to three dribbles and get to the basket. If an opening doesn’t appear, then the ball doesn’t touch the floor – dribbles aren’t wasted. The Cats knock down mid-range jump shots, move swiftly to open spots on the floor and keep the ball above their waists in the lane. All of this was showcased at the divisional tourney.

Columbia Falls entered the tournament with a mediocre 5-5 conference record and the fourth seed. The Wildcats had to win their final two regular season games just to get to .500. But it was clear the Wildcats were beginning to fire on all cylinders as the regular season came to a close and, with people well aware of the program’s winning tradition under Finberg, the Wildcats had to be considered a favorite again.

The Wildcats opened up the tournament with a dominating 69-47 win over fifth-seeded Ronan, setting up a semifinal matchup with archrival Whitefish. The Bulldogs were the No. 1 seed and had a 12-game winning streak coming into the tournament. But the day belonged to Columbia Falls. The Wildcats came from behind in the fourth quarter to upset the top-ranked Bulldogs 58-53.

Then in the championship against Polson, Columbia Falls controlled the pace of the game from the opening tip, forcing the Pirates into an uncustomary run-and-gun tempo. Despite a few valiant runs, the Pirates couldn’t keep up. Columbia Falls, led by seniors Mackey Nolan and Grant Getts, claimed the Northwestern A divisional basketball title with a 64-45 victory.

With two state champion hopefuls, the town of Columbia Falls will have plenty to cheer about in the upcoming weeks. The girls state tournament is held in Butte this week on March 5-7. The boys tourney is in Great Falls on March 12-14.

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