BOZEMAN – A game that started out with so much hype ended with too much Columbia Falls.
The Columbia Falls Wildcats blew past defending state champion Laurel 61-38 in the Class A boys basketball semifinals Friday night in front of a raucous crowd of thousands at Montana State University’s Brick Breeden Fieldhouse. The victory avenged a 47-43 double overtime loss to the Locomotives in the first round of last year’s tourney.
The Wildcats face Dillon at 8 p.m. Saturday.
Columbia Falls is playing in the title game for the fifth time in nine years. The last time was 2009 when they lost to Dillon 54-50. They won titles in 2003, 2005 and 2006.
Senior guard Devyn Rocker was only a sophomore in 2009 and didn’t play against Dillon, but he remembers the game well. This time, he wants to script a different ending.
“We want to bring one home,” Rocker, who scored eight points, said.
Similar to their 53-36 victory over Belgrade in the first round, the Wildcats turned a close game into a blowout with stingy second-half defense. The Wildcats led 28-21 at halftime and 35-25 to start the fourth quarter. By the midway point of the final period, Columbia Falls had increased its lead to 16 points, 49-33.
The Wildcats were without the services of senior forward Kaleb Johnson, who went down with a knee injury in the game against Belgrade. In his place, senior Jacob Calderwood and junior Anthony Correa stepped up, scoring eight points apiece. Senior Chris King scored only two points but led the team with seven rebounds in 26 solid minutes.
Senior point guard Nick Emerson led the Wildcats’ balanced scoring attack with 12 points. Junior guard Parker Johnson scored 11 points and junior Austin Barth battled through foul trouble to finish with 10. Emerson also had a game-high five assists, along with several blocks.
But it was the Wildcats’ swarming defense yet again that gets much of the credit for the victory. Laurel shot 11-of-44 from the field – 25 percent – and failed to connect from three-point range, missing all 12 attempts. The Wildcats, on the other hand, made 24 of their 46 field goal attempts, better than 50 percent.
“That’s something coach always talks about – I mean that’s pretty much what got us here is our defense,” King said.
With Johnson in street clothes on the sidelines, King said head coach Cary Finberg told the team to “play for Kaleb.”
“We wish we could have him,” King said. “But we’re going to play without him and we’re going to get him a title.”
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.