Big Timber and Columbus will meet again. The Sheepherders and Cougars won hard-fought semifinal games on Friday night to advance to Saturday's State B girls basketball title game inside First Interstate Arena at MetraPark.
Big Timber 56, Malta 43
Emily Cooley's ankle must be feeling good.
The junior had 19 points on 9-of-11 shooting and grabbed six rebounds to lead Big Timber past Malta, 56-43, in Friday night's semifinals of the State B girls basketball tournament inside First Interstate Arena at MetraPark in Billings. Big Timber will play in its first title game in 40 years. Big Timber went back-to-back in 1980 and 1981.
"I always wanted a state championship as a player and never got it. Being able to coach this group of girls and having a chance to get a state championship is just overwhelmingly exciting and the girls are super happy," Big Timber head coach Kim Finn said. "They've worked super hard to get where we are. All summer we are in the gym and just put so much time in. I'm hoping it all pays off for them."
"This is what we've wanted for the past two years," Cooley said. "We had to leave everything on the floor to win this game."
Cooley left Wednesday's opening-round game against Anaconda late in the first half with a sprained left ankle. She did not return in the Sheepherders' 63-58 win. She made her presence felt early and often on Friday night, though, scoring 12 first-half points to help Big Timber overcome an early seven-point deficit.
Big Timer out-scored Malta 22-9 in the second quarter to take a 26-20 lead into halftime. The lead only changed hands one time, as the Herders never gave it back after grabbing a 13-12 lead.
"I just told them that (Malta) seemed to want it a little more than we do. ... We seemed to shy away from the contact. I said, 'They're going aggressive at us, we better start doing the same thing or it's going to be a tough game.' They just got more aggressive and started drawing the contact a little bit and going to the free throw line, which is what we do well, and finished shots," Finn said. "Even right before the game started after we warmed up, (Cooley) said, 'Coach, I don't know if I can start.' I said, 'I'm sorry, you're going to. You're going to start, let me know if you can't make it.' She did a great job just fighting through the pain and had a great game."
"Warming up, it was not feeling great. I told coach I was fine with not starting, to start someone over me because they could probably play better," Cooley said. "She said no, just start and see what happens. I started and didn't feel a thing. The adrenaline must have kicked in right away. I didn't feel anything."
Malta came storming out of the locker room to open the third quarter and trimmed Big Timber's lead to one, 33-32, midway through the third quarter, but Big Timber responded with a 7-1 run to close the quarter and take a 39-34 into the final eight minutes.
"I said, 'Do you guys want this or not? This is our game if you guys just perform and play like you can.' They just listen to everything I say and they want the championship so bad that they're willing to give it all they have," Finn said.
Big Timber was able to put the game away from the free throw line down the stretch. The Herders made 15 of 24 from the foul line, while Malta was just 3 for 5.
Bailey Finn added 17 points and five assists for the Herders, while Hailee Brandon had 13 points. Malta's Allison Kunze had a 15-point, 11-rebound double-double.
It's going to be an all-Southern B championship game, as the Herders await the winner between Southern B runner-up Columbus and Roundup, which brought home last weekend's third-place trophy
Columbus 41, Roundup 34
Saturday night's State B title game will be a repeat of the Southern B championship game.
Columbus held off Roundup in Friday night's final semifinal, 41-34, to advance to its first state championship game since 2001. The Cougars finished runner-up to Baker that year.
"You hear our student section is here and they're super supportive of our girls. And our parents. We've had a very supportive group all year. To kind of reward everybody with letting them watch some good basketball and be proud of our kids, it's great for our town," Columbus head coach Jeromey Burke said.
"I cannot even explain it. I'm over the moon," senior Payton West said. "We started the season not even knowing if it was going to happen, and now we're here playing the championship (Saturday). That's just been our goal since the very beginning, so I don't even have words."
Free throws were a thorn in the Cougars' side in their opening-round win over Fairfield on Thursday, but the charity stripe treated them well on Friday. Columbus finished 10 of 13 from the foul line, including an 8-for-8 performance from West, who sunk six consecutive free throws in the final 31.8 seconds to stave off Roundup's comeback hopes.
"She's been clutch all year. For her sake, I know she was beating herself up about those couple travels, for her to come back and finish and shake that -- that's just what she does. She's a very mentally strong kid," Burke said. "I told her it was a travel, too, so I tell her the truth. I said, 'It was a travel, come end it for us.' And she did."
"We've shot so many free throws over the year. We knew we could make them, we just had to have the confidence to step up and make it," West said.
The teams played to a draw in the first half, entering the locker room tied up at 19. Sawyer Wiggs got the Columbus offensive kick-started in the third quarter, scoring her team's first eight points and giving the Cougars a 30-25 advantage after three quarters.
Roundup stormed right back, eventually taking a 31-30 lead, but a Reed Johnson layup and Wiggs 3-pointer gave the Cougars a 35-31 lead with under three minutes to play.
"This is the first full season of basketball (Wiggs) has played just with injuries and stuff. I just think she was kind of a secret weapon we had because she hadn't had a full season," Burke said. "It's just the truth, man. She's a gamer. When she plays well and shows up for a whole game, we're a lot better team."
Roundup's Blythe Sealey hit a layup to cut the deficit to two, then Columbus was whistled for traveling.
The Panthers, though, couldn't convert. Tia Stahl missed a go-ahead 3-pointer to force Roundup to foul to extend the game. West, though, had ice in her veins down the stretch.
Possessions were long throughout the game, which is no surprise given this was the fourth time the two sides had seen each other this season.
"There wasn't a game plan (Friday). The game plan was you have to go out and play better than this team," Burke said. "They know what we do and we know what they do, so just go out and play better. I felt like our girls took the challenge and stepped up."
West and Wiggs each finished with 14 points to lead all scorers. Sealey led Roundup with 10 points and seven rebounds.
Columbus will now play Big Timber for a fourth time this season. The unbeaten Sheepherders won the three previous meetings.
"We're going to have to buckle down and show up, play good defense, shut down some of their good players and knock down some free throws and knock down some shots," West said. "We just really want to go out loose and have fun. We're where we want to be, this is our whole goal, so just enjoy it and try to play the best game we can."