Grandma would have been proud.
Rattled in both games, plagued by poor shooting and faced with frantic finishes, the Columbia Falls boys and girls basketball teams needed gritty spirit.
Both games, they found it.
In front of a raucous crowd colored in blue and white — a well-known collection of faithful fans that travels far and wide to cheer on its teams — Columbia Falls triumphed at the Northwestern A Divisional basketball tournaments in Whitefish last weekend.
The Wildcats captured their seventh divisional title in a row, defeating Polson 62-48 and advancing to the Class A state tournament in Bozeman, where the boys will try to defend their title, March 12-14.
When it was the girls turn, the Wildkats repeated as divisional champs, holding off Frenchtown 53-43 and storming into this weekend’s state tournament in Hamilton with title aspirations of their own.
Four years after taking the helm of both the boys and girls teams and a year after becoming the first Class A head coach to win two divisional titles in the same night, Cary Finberg did it again. The 19th-year head coach improved his career record with the boys to 295-137. The girls are 67-21 under Finberg.
As the latest trophies were hoisted and the community celebration ensued on Saturday night, one familiar face was missing. But her presence was certainly felt.
Norma J. Finberg passed away Feb. 23. She was 84. She was the mother of longtime head coach, Cary, and assistant coach Cathy. She was the grandmother of Ciera, a senior guard, Cydney, a sophomore guard, and assistant coaches Christopher Finberg and Brandon Rice. As the Hungry Horse News aptly described her, she was the matriarch of Columbia Falls basketball, a passionate, devoted fan who embodied the community support of its student athletes.
“It’s been tough, but we’re playing for her and we’re trying to do the best we can. And we did,” Ciera said after Saturday’s game. “I hope we’re making her proud.”
Wearing shirts that read, “Do it For Grams,” Columbia Falls took the court with pressure and expectations after another remarkable regular season.
The girls steamrolled opponents this winter, averaging 64 points per game and limiting opposing teams to 32 ppg. At 19-1 overall, their only shortcoming was against one of the top Class AA teams, Glacier, on Jan. 15, when the Wolfpack edged the Wildkats 46-40.
Frenchtown tested the strength of the winning streak in a rematch of last year’s divisional championship, providing Columbia Falls a wake-up call. The Kats appeared rattled most of the first half and went into halftime with a slim 20-17 lead.
But the girls regrouped and regained their poise, thanks in large part to the sharp-shooting of Cydney Finberg, who drained a pair of three-pointers early in the third quarter and sparked the offense.
Cydney finished with nine points, Ciera led the team with 12 and senior forward Winter Kemppainen added 10 points.
“We haven’t been challenged a ton this year. Even though it was a little unsettling, I think it was good for us to see that,” Ciera said. “It was good practice and experience for what we’re going to see down the road.”
Columbia Falls, with the No. 1 seed from the Northwest, opens the state tournament at 2 p.m., Thursday against Butte Central (17-5), which defeated Dillon in a challenge game on Monday.
Frenchtown (12-7) opens up tournament action against Hamilton (15-6) at 6:30 p.m., Thursday. In other opening round games, Billings Central (10-11) takes on Lewistown (8-13), which beat Livingston in a challenge game Monday. Havre (16-4) plays Hardin (12-9) in the opening round of state at 8 p.m., Thursday.
“Mistakes and tentativeness are doubled or tripled in tournaments as opposed to the regular season. When you get to tournament basketball, anything happens sometimes. But we found a way to withstand it and get a win,” Cary Finberg said.
“I’m very proud of our effort. We needed a game like this. Going into the state tournament, that’s exactly what we needed.”
Finberg said he didn’t think the emotions of his mother’s recent passing affected the girls’ performance.
“If anything that should motivate us more. She wasn’t out there missing shots,” Finberg said.
Last season the Wildkats went 22-2 and brought home a third-place trophy from state, the program’s first hardware since 1988.
Havre defeated Hamilton 51-43 to win last year’s title.
With a strong group of experienced players back, Columbia Falls will no doubt contend for a title, which would be the team’s first since 1983, when the Wildkats won their one and only championship. The last time the team played in the championship game was in 1986, when Billings Central won 51-35.
“They’re a hard club to match up with. They’ve got great depth and they’ve got great height and great length. And they are well coached,” said Frenchtown coach Jim Tolman.
“They’re a legitimate contender right now.”
The Columbia Falls boys have targets on their backs as the reigning state champions. No doubt they have lived up to the expectations this winter.
Finberg has molded another well-rounded roster of savvy role players that are 17-3 overall. Their only losses came against rival Dillon, 64-44 in the third game of the season, against Class AA Glacier, 47-46 on Jan. 15 and against one of the top Class B teams, Bigfork, 59-56 on Feb. 5.
Polson made a nice run at the six-time divisional champs on Saturday, drawing within 10 points midway through the fourth quarter. But the Wildcats withstood Polson’s talented Matthew Rensvold and the Pirates attack, clamping down on defense and sinking clutch baskets down the stretch. It was a similar gutsy performance as the night before, when Columbia Falls limited Frenchtown to 40 points and stifled top scorer Bridger Truett.
In the divisional championship, senior Ty Morgan scored 18 points, junior Grant Wallace had 12 and senior Jayce Fagerland chipped in 10. Rensvold led Polson with 14 points, Andrew Curley added 12 and Tanner Wilson scored 11 for Polson, which defeated Frenchtown 52-42 in a challenge game on Monday to determine a state berth.
“You’re not going to go into tournaments — divisionals or state — and win many games easily. You got to earn it,” Finberg said. “The boys I thought defensively (Feb. 27 against Frenchtown) made a statement. We didn’t play great offensively. Definitely we made a statement. Offense comes and goes but both games the boys played very strong defensively. I was very happy.”
Columbia Falls (17-3) opens up the state tournament at 2 p.m., March 12, in Bozeman against Butte Central (13-8), which beat Hamilton in a challenge game. Belgrade (16-5) takes on Laurel (15-6), which beat Miles City, at 12:30 p.m., March 12. Dillon (19-1) plays Polson (10-11) at 6:30 p.m. Billings Central (14-6) plays Havre (14-7), which eliminated Livingston, at 8 p.m.
A lot can happen, but if history is any indicator it seems destined that there will be a matchup between Columbia Falls and Dillon.
Last year the two teams clashed in the title game for the fourth time in six years. Columbia Falls emerged victorious, 55-43, winning its fifth title since 2003 and evening the record between the two dynastic programs at 2-all.
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