BOZEMAN – With 13.8 seconds left in the Class A boys basketball state title game, injured Columbia Falls senior Kaleb Johnson hobbled out to midcourt and caught an inbounds pass from teammate Nick Emerson.
Dillon’s players, down by 12 points and resigned to defeat, respectfully allowed Johnson to dribble out the remaining time on the clock. When the buzzer sounded, Johnson could proudly say he played in a state title victory. He hadn’t played since injuring his ACL in Thursday’s first-round win over Belgrade.
“The best thing ever – no words can describe what I’m feeling right now,” said a teary-eyed Johnson after the victory. “I’m just so glad the coach got me in that last (13.8 seconds.) The best moment of my life.”
“To hear everyone cheering,” he added, “it just gives you chills.”
Playing in front of a crowd of 3,018 at Montana State University’s Brick Breeden Fieldhouse Saturday night, the Wildcats defeated Dillon 55-43 in a rematch of the 2009 Class A championship. Dillon won that game 54-50.
With victory already ensured late in the fourth quarter, it appeared Columbia Falls would let the final seconds tick off the clock. But head coach Cary Finberg called a timeout with 13.8 seconds left and sent in Johnson, a symbolic gesture from a coach who couldn’t stand seeing his senior on the sidelines in the biggest game of his life.
Though Johnson’s moment was a dramatic finish to a dream season, the rest of the game had little drama. The same could be said for Columbia Falls’ two other victories. The Wildcats beat Belgrade and Laurel by a combined 40 points in the first round and semifinals.
In the championship, Columbia Falls built a 20-point lead in the first half, led by senior point guard Nick Emerson. Emerson scored 19 of his 26 points before halftime. For the game, he shot 10-for-14 from the field and 6-for-7 from the foul line to lead all scorers.
At one point in the first half, Emerson scored 15 of the Wildcats’ 16 points. He had more points than Dillon’s whole team at halftime as the Wildcats took a 32-16 lead into the break.
Dillon fought back in the second half, outscoring the Wildcats 12-7 in the third quarter. The Beavers were able to find holes in Columbia Falls’ defense and knock down three pointers when given space on the perimeter.
The Wildcats took a 39-28 lead into the fourth quarter. The Beavers were able to cut the lead down to seven points at 50-43 with 1:19 remaining, the smallest margin since the first quarter. But the Wildcats stood their ground in the final minute, leading up to Johnson’s late entrance.
Junior Austin Barth scored 11 points for the Wildcats and senior Chris King led the team with nine rebounds. Wes Knox scored 10 for the Beavers.
Columbia Falls finishes the season 22-1, the best record in school history. The Wildcats won titles in 2003, 2005 and 2006. Dillon’s year-end record is 20-3.
“We played well the whole season – only one loss,” said junior guard Parker Johnson. “It was just a great season.”
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