BELGRADE — Columbus junior Brenna Rouane admitted coach Jeromey Burke sometimes has to refocus the Cougars.
On Thursday, it was the girls themselves who refocused.
After building a double-digit lead against Fairfield in the first round of the Class B girls basketball state tournament, the Cougars saw the Eagles come back and take the lead in the fourth quarter. Columbus quickly rallied, retook the lead, and prevailed for a 41-38 win at the Belgrade Special Events Center.
“To be perfectly honest, they did the refocusing more than I did,” Burke said. “I just kind of reminded them of the things we said we needed to do to beat a team like Fairfield that we weren’t doing. And they just found a way.”
Counter to most teams at the State B tournaments this weekend, Columbus got out to a quick start Thursday. The Cougars scored 18 points in the first quarter, building a 10-point lead after the first eight minutes. That lead briefly got to 11 before Fairfield started chipping away.
The Eagles’ defense stiffened, limiting Columbus to just three points in the second quarter and four in the third. Fairfield ultimately took the lead early in the fourth quarter, and the teams traded baskets the rest of the way.
“They really brought it at us this time. Other teams we can jump on them and they can’t bring it back, but this team, they had the fight. And we had the courage to bring it back to them to take over the game,” said Rouane, who finished with 10 points and six rebounds to lead a balanced Columbus attack.
Seven players scored for the Cougars, who entered the tournament as the No. 1 seed out of the Southern B. Morgan Kirch added nine points, and Alexa Riveland and Brooklyn Wyllie each contributed seven.
“(Fairfield coach Dustin) Gordon and I are pretty good friends, and it’s kind of like what he said before. He just said, ’It’s different to play a team like you, because you have six, seven, eight girls that can score nine points. You don’t have one that’s going to put up 30,’” Burke said. “But it makes it hard to game-plan for us, and that’s something we actually take pride in, is we never know who’s going to step up. Minutes fluctuate based on that, and one of the reasons we’ve had success is because the girls buy into that.”
Fairfield slowly clawed back into the game after facing the early deficit thanks in part to Naemi Wipf and Taylor Simmons, who combined for 21 points. Wipf made two of Fairfield’s five 3-pointers in the game and had a decent look at a deep straightaway 3 to potentially tie the game at the buzzer.
The ball banked off the backboard and caromed off the rim, sealing the win for Columbus, which is playing in its first state tournament since 2015 when it placed fourth. The Cougars will meet Wolf Point in a Friday semifinal game at 5 p.m.
“I think we really wanted it. We’ve been waiting for this moment for literally, at least from what I’ve heard from all of them, they have all wanted it just as much as I have,” Rouane said. “We just were all mentally prepared. We were all ready to go, and we’ve been waiting for this moment forever.”
Fairfield, the third seed out of the Northern B, will face Missoula Loyola in a loser-out game at 1:30 p.m. Friday.
Wolf Point 54, Missoula Loyola 44
Wolf Point has spent the majority of this 2018-19 girls basketball season incorporating transfers Imani Bighorn and Mya Fourstar.
On Thursday in the first round of the Class B state tournament, the Wolves came together as a team in a 54-44 win over Missoula Loyola at the Belgrade Special Events Center.
“We’ve had drama and stuff like every team. We fought, but we always love each other and stuff. With the transfers and everything, it has been difficult. A lot of changes have been made. We just always have to work together,” said senior Abby Juve.
Bighorn transferred to Wolf Point from Poplar and Fourstar transferred in from Class C Frazer. Those additions instantly made an alread-solid Wolf Point team one of the favorites in Class B. The Wolves have been dominant at times this season, but they’ve also had their struggles.
Thursday’s win was the latest evidence that Wolf Point is peaking at the right time during an up-and-down season.
“We had some other players step up. We’ve kind of been off and on throughout the season, so they stepped up big for us in a couple big ways, which we were hoping that would happen,” said Wolf Point coach Cody Larson. “Give a lot of credit to Loyola, give a ton of credit to Loyola. It was a good win for us.”
Loyola scratched and clawed to keep the game close, but Wolf Point’s size overwhelmed the young Breakers. The 6-foot Juve had eight points in the first half and Bighorn, 6-3, added six as Wolf Point took a 26-12 lead into the break.
Loyola battled in the second half behind Sam Clevenger and Lani Walker, threatening multiple times. Clevenger and Walker combined to score 27 points in the game, with 19 of those coming after the break.
“We knew they were going to press. They’re a physical team, good team, very well-coached,” Larson said. “We still got some new pieces to the puzzle. I think what made the difference tonight, our size kind of took into play, which I kind of thought we would.”
Bighorn finished with 18 points and nine rebounds, Juve had 12 points and six boards and Fourstar finished with 13 points. Mary Bighorn corralled seven rebounds as the Wolves out-rebounded the Breakers 36-26 in the game.
Juve did much of that damage in the first half. Beyond her scoring, she was a relentless worker on the glass and a pest on defense.
“I thought she was huge for us, especially in the first half,” said Larson, who celebrated his 32nd birthday on Thursday. “She’s kind of been one of those players, with our new pieces, that have played different roles, because she was our main post player. It was great to see her have a big game for us.”
“Everyone was asking me if I was nervous and stuff, and I was like, ‘No! I’m just ready to play. I just want to get it done,’” Juve said. “I honestly think that if we come together, if we play like we can, that we’re going to win this.”
Wolf Point, the No. 2 seed out of the North, will play Columbus, the South’s No. 1 seed in a semifinal game at 5 p.m. Friday.
Loyola falls to loser-out action and will meet Fairfield at 1:30 p.m. Friday.