GREAT FALLS – The 9 a.m. start didn’t seem to bother Laurel.
The Locomotives, the Eastern A’s No. 4 seed, started the game on a 21-0 run and led 23-2 on their way to a 58-29 win over Columbia Falls, the Western A’s No. 1 seed, in the first round of the State A girls basketball tournament at Pacific Steel & Recycling Four Seasons Arena on Thursday.
Laurel hit its first six attempts from 3-point land, including five in the first quarter, to blow things open early.
“Being able to go out there and shoot the ball as well as we did is a good thing,” Laurel head coach Pat Hansen said. “We seem like as a team when we’re locked in defensively, offensively we play a lot better, and that showed there. Against a great-coached team that (Columbia Falls head coach Cary) Finberg has and the scheme he runs, you’re going to have to make shots from the perimeter. Fortunate for us, we did.”
Laurel cooled off from beyond the arc, but its defense dictated the tempo for the entirety of the game. The Locomotives forced 14 first-half turnovers, leading to 22 points. It was much of the same in the second half, as Laurel held Columbia Falls to just 32.1 percent from the floor for the game and forced a total of 30 turnovers. Those 30 turnovers led to 38 points for the Locomotives.
“That’s huge. Against a team that coach Finberg coaches, that’s huge, because they’re so well-disciplined. We had a couple mistakes defensively, but I thought we played good, solid defense. We made sure that our rotations and communication allowed us to stay between them and the basket as much as possible,” Hansen said.
“We were ready to play,” Laurel senior guard Aspen Cotter said. “We talked about how playing defense will lead to our offense, and each one of us that shot a 3 in the beginning, we hit it. … I think (the ball pressure) frustrated them. Eastern A, we’re pretty tough. Everyone is all up in everyone’s grill, and I don’t think they’re used to all these guards up in their face. We’re little, but we’re pretty feisty.”
Laurel, though, knew Columbia Falls wouldn’t go quietly. After building a 33-11 halftime lead, the Locomotives were outscored 11-9 in the third quarter but only allowed the lead to drop below 20 momentarily.
Ten girls scored for Laurel, led by freshman Mya Hansen’s 12 points. Hansen, though, was the only Laurel girl in double figures.
“We’ve shown we’ve got some very good depth on our team. From top to bottom, our girls do such a great job,” said Pat Hansen. “If a girl needs to sit down, just kind of collect her thoughts a little bit, we have a girl that can jump right in and know what we’re doing. So I think our depth has helped us (maintain focus).”
Aspen Cotter and sister Maeson each finished with nine points for Laurel. Aspen also added five assists and five steals. Trista Cowen led Columbia Falls with eight points. Columbia Falls moves into loser-out action and will play Libby at 9 a.m. on Friday morning.
Laurel will be in Friday’s semifinal against Havre at 3:30 p.m.
Stats: Laurel 58, Columbia Falls 29
Havre 62, Libby 28
Defending champion Havre shook off early jitters to get into Friday’s semifinal round. The Blue Ponies outscored Libby 37-8 in the second half, defeating the Loggers, 62-28, on Thursday in the first round of the State A girls basketball tournament at Pacific Steel & Recycling Four Seasons Arena.
“We had a good talk in the locker room,” Havre junior guard Kyndal Keller said. “We knew we needed to pick it up and get after it, we knew that wasn’t our game.”
Libby was within five at halftime, but the Blue Ponies came out with more intensity and fire in the second half. Havre switched to a full-court press in the third quarter, forcing Libby into turnovers and quick shots.
Havre was able to convert time and again in transition in the second half to pull away, while its suffocating defense stifled the Libby offense.
“We talked to our kids about having a little more energy and enthusiasm, which they did,” Havre head coach Dustin Kraske said. “Defensively, I didn’t think we had the effort. … When our kids get after it and play hard, they’re fun to watch. They share the ball so well. Moving around defensively, talking, switching, helping, handsy, so it’s good stuff.”
“I think the pressure really helped. When we play good on defense, our offense just flows better and naturally comes to us,” Keller said.
Libby led for the majority of the first quarter, but Havre went on a 13-0 run spanning the end of the first and middle of the second quarter to take control. Libby’s Jayden Winslow, though, buried four first-half 3-pointers to keep the Loggers within five, 25-20, at halftime.
However, Winslow struggled to get much going in the second half, as the switch to a man-to-man defense by Havre left little room for Winslow to get free.
“We did a little more face-guard work for her, try to not help off as much,” Kraske said of trying to slow down Winslow. “To her credit, she shot the ball very confidently. She’s a good player, that’s obvious. She did a really nice job. … Seeing a kid on tape and then in person, in person is quite a bit more impressive.”
Keller led Havre with 14 points on 6-of-10 shooting. Kadia Miller had 10 and Sadie Filius added 10 off the bench. Winslow led Libby with 14.
The Blue Ponies will face a familiar opponent in Friday’s semifinals, as Eastern A foe Laurel awaits. Libby will take on Columbia Falls in loser-out action on Friday morning.
“We need to have the energy of our second half carry us through a 32-minute game. Laurel is tremendously well-coached. They share the ball well, they’re quick, athletic, very good defensively,” Kraske said. “It’s going to be really fun.”