BUTTE – When the champions were against the ropes, Arlee coach Zanen Pitts called on his warrior leaders.
Arlee took body blows from Manhattan Christian in the Class C boys basketball state championship in front of a capacity crowd of 6,000-plus fans at the Civic Center on Saturday. But Phillip Malatare and Will Mesteth helped lift the Warriors to a 66-58 win, capturing Arlee’s second consecutive Class C state title over Manhattan Christian.
“Zanen told us as seniors, when it came down to the last minute, he told us, ‘Seniors, this is your guys’ game, take over and just win the game.’ That’s what we did,” said Malatare, who scored 18 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, dished out five assists and swiped four steals in another monster game for the star senior.
“Phillip is great. He’s a kid that I hope my sons grow up to be like, but so are those other 16,” Pitts said. “He wouldn’t have done it without Will Mesteth being right there, his wingman. Greg Whitesell, he kind of struggled with some decision-making at the guard position, but he stuck it out. He wasn’t going to quit. But Phillip Malatare, his name is going to go down as one of the special ones. Right there beside him, Will Mesteth and the rest of the Warriors. They’re 12 strong.”
Mesteth also scored 18 points, knocking down three timely 3-pointers to spark the Warriors. His first 3 capped a 7-0 Arlee run to end the first half, giving the Warriors a 26-19 lead at the break after both teams battled nerves in the early going.
Manhattan Christian came out of the third on fire, though, starting the period on a 12-3 run to take a 31-29 lead. Mesteth answered again, drilling back-to-back corner 3s to give Arlee back a lead it would never relinquish.
“We get a one-point lead and Will hits a 3 in the corner. … He’s hit some big shots against us, so that was huge,” said Manhattan Christian coach Jeff Bellach. “Early in the game, we looked a little bit nervous and maybe a little bit afraid a couple times. You just can’t do that against a great team like that, but I was proud of how the guys fought back from it.”
The Eagles demonstrated their trademark resiliency all night, mounting rally after rally to stay with the powerhouse Warriors.
Malatare and Mesteth seemingly had an answer for every run, though, ultimately putting the game away at the free throw line. The Warriors also got big-time contributions from juniors Lane Johnson and Isaac Fisher, who added a combined 26 points in the win.
Manhattan Christian’s Caleb Bellach scored a game-high 27 points, but made just three of 10 3-point attempts. As a team, the Eagles made seven of 21 from beyond the arc, but they lost the rebound and turnover battles. Arlee had a 37-27 advantage on the boards and forced 19 Manhattan Christian turnovers.
“These boys, they dug deeper than any group of kids I’ve had the opportunity to coach. We had a lot of turnovers in that game, but my gosh they dug deep. That ride was one of the most crazy rides in my life once we hit postseason. It was everything I dreamt of, everything I would have expected it to have been and, man, it’s crazy,” Pitts said. “I’m a competitor and don’t normally care about anyone I’m playing against, but I really, really have a spot in my heart for Manhattan Christian. Coach Bellach and his family and that team, I could name every one of those boys by their first name. Even the freshman stepped up tonight, Coach (Aaron) Hill’s boy. I just want to give a shout out to Manhattan Christian. It’s unfortunate, the outcome, there has to be a winner, but those are a good group of boys and a phenomenal program. I’m super blessed and God has given us the opportunity to come out on top every time, but I want them to know how much they mean to us.”
“There’s a lot of mutual respect back and forth,” Bellach said. “It’s a pretty cool thing what the two programs have been able to do over the past four years, really, even though we weren’t in the state title game with them (in 2016) and the year before we played the undercard (in a Saturday morning loser-out game). They’re a great team, they’re great players, great kids. … Ton of respect for them, too. It’s just unfortunate that we have to be on the other end of it.”