Wild(cats) Finish

Columbia Falls shows just how fast it's growing up by stunning Ronan on road.

By 406mtsports.com
Columbia Falls' Jace Hill (14) and Alihn Anderson (13) guard Ronan's Leonard Burke (23) during their basketball game at Ronan High School, Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021. Photo by Ben Allan Smith via 406mtsports.com

Chris Finberg had never started a freshman in his first four seasons as the Columbia Falls boys basketball coach.

He’s now starting two freshmen. And both have been coming up big for the young squad.

Those freshmen, Jace Hill and Alihn Anderson, scored 26 of their 34 points in the second half on Tuesday as Columbia Falls stunned Ronan, 67-57, by closing the game on a 12-0 run. The win moves the Wildcats to 4-2 overall, 3-2 in the Northwest A and provided a glimpse of what may be to come for the scrappy, young team that has four new starters.

“The past four years, we’ve had struggles,” Finberg offered, “but we’ve stuck with it as a coaching staff, we’ve been grinding through some of these seasons knowing that if we keep doing the right thing, I think it’s going to turn around, and we’re starting to see that. This team, we’re young, but it’s my most talented team that I’ve had. It’s fun to coach.”

Hill scored 12 of his 18 points in the second half, perhaps the biggest coming on his layup through traffic and his and-1 conversion to give Columbia Falls a 58-57 lead with 2:43 left in the game. It was the Wildcats’ first lead of the second half and kicked off their 12-0 run to close the contest.

Hill, the team’s leading scorer through six games, added three more free throws after as Columbia Falls made eight of 13 foul shots during the game-ending run. Ronan didn’t make a basket during that stretch and didn’t attempt a free throw.

“I think the ball movement was great, we were passing great in the fourth quarter,” said Hill, a 5-foot-11 guard who honed his shot over the years while tagging along to basketball practices that his sister, Columbia Falls senior point guard LaKia Hill, went to. “We were getting open looks. We were playing good as a team in the second half.”

Anderson, a 5-10 guard, scored 14 of his 16 points in the second half after struggling in the opening two quarters as Columbia Falls went into the break trailing 30-25. The Wildcats’ deficit grew as big as eight points, 44-36, but Anderson hit three consecutive 3-pointers to pull them within 49-45 heading to the fourth quarter.

Anderson’s final field goal, a layup with 5:05 left in the game, provided the first tie of the second half, knotting the game at 51-51. It was the first tie since a 25-all score in the first half, which Ronan closed on a 13-2 run by using its active defense and fast break offense. Columbia Falls had opened the second quarter on a 14-0 run after trailing 17-9 following the first quarter.

“The way we closed the game proves to me that we’re young but we can play,” said Finberg, whose team improved to 3-0 on the road. “We didn’t put together a full four quarters. I thought we slept-walked through that first half, but, boy, to sleepwalk through a half and put up 67 points is good. Very pleased with how we played in that second half, especially the fourth quarter.”

Columbia Falls’ lone returning starter, senior Allec Knapton, scored nine points, as did junior Mason Peters, a first-year starter. Junior Cade Morgan, also a new starter, added seven points.

Ronan’s Leonard Burke and Elijah Tonasket carried the load in the second half to keep Ronan ahead until the closing minutes. Burke scored 10 of his 17 points in the second half, while Tonasket had eight of his 16 after the intermission.

Columbia Falls shut down senior Girma Detwiler, holding him to one point in the second half after he went off for 11 in the first half. He was also hampered by foul trouble.

It was the second consecutive loss for Ronan. The Chiefs are now 4-2 overall, 1-1 in conference.

“We haven’t had a fourth quarter like that where we close a game and played that well,” Finberg said. “It’s very exciting to see.”

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