HAMILTON — Zanen Pitts and the undefeated top-ranked Arlee Warriors didn’t buy the hype surrounding their Western C semifinal boys basketball game with Manhattan Christian on Friday.
It was just another “practice” in the Warriors’ quest to defend their Class C state championship, which they earned with a win over the Eagles last March.
“They already forgot about (Friday’s semifinal) game,” Pitts said of his players after Arlee outlasted Manhattan Christian for a thrilling 69-60 win. “We’re done. We talk about mistakes, we don’t talk about the win. The win, it’s in the past. That was a productive practice. We all went through there, our captains stepped up, talked about the areas we struggled. They didn’t talk about what we did well. (Saturday) morning, we’ll go have a shootaround. This game’s in the past, and we don’t talk about it ever again until the season’s over.”
If Pitts and his team don’t want to talk about this game, the fans in attendance will likely do the talking for them. In front of a near-capacity crowd, Arlee and second-ranked Manhattan Christian delivered the exciting cat-and-mouse game fans were expecting.
Even with Phillip Malatare and Will Mesteth battling illness, the Warriors established an early lead they would never actually relinquish. Arlee led 20-16 after one, grew the lead to 39-30 at halftime and owned a 49-37 advantage in the third quarter after Mesteth sparked a 7-0 run, drilling a 3-pointer and lay-up before assisting another bucket with a behind-the-back pass.
But Manhattan Christian continued to battle back. The Eagles put together a 9-0 run to end the third quarter and start the fourth to close within 49-46. The approximate four-minute scoreless stretch was the longest Arlee has endured this season, according to Pitts.
“You get exploited when you kind of have a long, drawn-out season without really pushing yourself at certain times throughout games,” Pitts said, “so it allows us to get real loose with the ball and not tight and be a little bit complacent with our decisions. I guarantee you that was exactly what we needed.”
It was Greg Whitesell — the third member of Pitts’ “three-headed monster” — who stabilized the Warriors in the fourth, hitting a couple big shots from the floor and all four of his free throw attempts. Whitesell finished with 16 points, second on the team behind Mesteth’s 25. Malatare scored 12, Lane Johnson added 11 and Isaac Fisher five.
Manhattan Christian again withstood Arlee’s surge, though, trimming the lead to 63-60 on a pull-up 3-pointer from Matthew Amunrud with 38.5 seconds left. Amunrud made three 3s on the night to finish with a team-high 13 points.
The Eagles wouldn’t score again, and the Warriors would ice the game at the free throw line, securing their berth in Saturday’s Western C divisional championship.
“It came down the stretch, I think the only thing that got us at the end was the fact that we had a little more conditioning and a little bit bigger heart maybe,” Pitts said. “I’ve got nothing bad to say about what they did with their game plan. (Manhattan Christian coach Jeff Bellach) brought it.”
Ryan Busch added 12 points for the Eagles, and Parker Dyksterhouse and Caleb Bellach each scored 11.
Manhattan Christian will now face Gardiner in a loser-out game at 10:30 a.m. Saturday. The Bruins, who have lost three times to Manhattan Christian this season, extended their season with a 79-43 win over Seeley-Swan on Friday.
Arlee, meanwhile, will take its undefeated record into the Western C championship against Plains. Tipoff is scheduled for 8 p.m.
Plains 56, Twin Bridges 46
Tanner Ovitt made three first-half 3-pointers on his way to a team-high 20 points to help Plains to a 56-46 win over Twin Bridges in the late semifinal of the Western C boys basketball divisional tournament. The Horsemen led 27-22 at halftime and would grow the lead to double digits after the break, holding the Falcons to just six points in the third quarter. Kyle Weeks and Jay VonHeeder each added 10 points for Plains. Daniel Kruer (22) points and Bryce Nye (18) combined to score 40 of Twin Bridges’ 46 points.
The Horsemen will now meet Arlee in the championship on Saturday, seeking their first win in four attempts against the top-ranked Warriors, while Twin Bridges will play Drummond in a loser-out game Saturday at 10:30 a.m. The Trojans defeated Darby 65-49 in a loser-out game Friday to extend their season.