BOZEMAN – Overcoming a slow start and an injury to a key player, the Columbia Falls Wildcats defeated the Belgrade Panthers 53-36 Thursday in the first round of the Class A boys state basketball tournament at Montana State University’s Brick Breeden Fieldhouse.
With the victory the Wildcats advance to the semifinals, where they will play the defending champion Laurel Locomotives, who defeated Corvallis in the first round. The semifinal game will be at 6:30 p.m. Friday evening. Laurel upset Columbia Falls in the first round of last year’s tourney 47-43 in double overtime.
After leading 9-8 at the end of the first quarter and 19-14 at halftime, the Wildcats outscored Belgrade 34-22 in the second half, fueled by a swarming zone that forced Belgrade to resort to long three-pointers. Of the Panthers’ 34 total shot attempts, 24 were three-pointers. They made eight.
But the win was bittersweet for Columbia Falls. The Wildcats, now 20-1 this season, learned that senior forward Kaleb Johnson, one of the team’s leading scorers and rebounders, tore the ACL in his right leg near the end of the first half. His season is done.
“I feel for Kaleb,” said head coach Cary Finberg. “He’s worked so hard, he’s such a good kid.”
“The team’s going to be fine,” he added. “The kid I feel for is Kaleb. He’s the one suffering right now. We’re going to be fine. Like I told them, we’re not a one- or two-man team. Everybody’s just got to do their part and pick it up a little bit.”
For awhile, the Panthers’ strategy of launching three-pointers was effective. Four of their five made field goals at halftime were three-pointers and they trailed by only five points. Senior guard Talon Taylor made three of his five threes in the first half. He finished with 20 points.
In the second half, however, the Wildcats’ zone began to push Belgrade farther out and force the Panthers into turnovers. For the game, Belgrade finished with 20 turnovers, compared to Columbia Falls’ 12.
Particularly troubling for the Panthers was 6-5 point guard Nick Emerson, who played at the top of the zone and wreaked havoc in the passing lanes for the smaller Belgrade guards.
On the offensive end, Emerson finished with a team-high 12 points. He opened up the game with a breakaway dunk after a Columbia Falls steal.
Senior post Austin Barth also had 12 points, to go along with a game-high 12 rebounds. At 6-6, Barth was a constant presence on both the offensive and defensive boards, finishing with six of each.
Columbia Falls missed a number of layups throughout the game, especially in the first half. But the Wildcats were able to overcome their first-game jitters and by the middle of the third quarter their offense began to look fluid.
“It’s a great atmosphere,” Emerson said. “You’ve got to love the big games.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.