The Arlee Warriors will have a chance to defend their state title for a second consecutive season.
The two-time defending State C champions rallied from a halftime deficit to beat Twin Bridges, 52-51, in a Western C challenge game on Wednesday in Deer Lodge.
"What a great game of basketball," Arlee head coach Zanen Pitts said. "Twin Bridges balled out. It was one of those games that would have been fun to watch from the stands. It was bucket for bucket and lead changes.
"Our boys never quit. It’s hard to say who wanted it more, but the ball was in our hands last. Twin Bridges hit four or five 3s with hands in their faces. It was an impressive display of shooting. Our guys were able to lock down at the end and able to capitalize on every possession."
Trailing 29-23 at the half, the Warriors corrected early defensive issues to outscore Twin Bridges 13-9 in the third quarter and 17-13 in the final frame. They built a 47-40 lead in the fourth quarter but needed a free throw with 1.8 seconds left to break a tie and create the final margin.
"We made some matchup changes defensively, played them differently," Pitts said of halftime adjustments. "We were over-helping and had too much emotion and too many guys rotating to try to close out, and they made the extra pass and exploited us. It was do or die coming off a loss, and there was a lot of emotion to start."
Arlee junior Cody Tanner came off the bench and scored all 10 of his points in the fourth quarter to key the comeback. Senior forward Isaac Fisher tallied eight of his game-high 16 points in the second half, while fellow seniors Lane Johnson and Greg Whitesell added 10 and six points, respectively.
"(Cody) just came in there and was dialed in," Pitts said. "He’s a great player. He’s a Tanner, and all Tanners know how to score. He’s got an unwavering confidence, and you could see he had the touch after he knocked his first shot down. Isaac and Lane had big games, so the defense couldn’t help as much on Cody. Greg being Greg, he pulled a lot of attention, and Cody was able to find those seams."
Warriors senior Darshan Bolen finished with just three points, but his free throw in the closing seconds proved to be the winning basket.
"Dar’s one of our best free throws shooters and is lights out in practice," Pitts said. "He texted me late last night that he was looking for a gym to get into to get shots up and was able to get up shots this morning. His mechanics were perfect, and the shot was money."
Twin Bridges juniors Bryce Nye and Jake Hughes each scored a team-high 13 points. Senior Daniel Kruer added nine points, including a 3-pointer that tied the game at 51-51 in the final five seconds. Sophomore Charlie Kruer chipped in eight points.
This will be the fifth consecutive state appearance for the Warriors (22-2). They made the championship game the past three seasons and won the title the last two years.
They'll be the second seed out of the Western C and will play the top seed out of the Eastern C, Scobey, at 2 p.m. March 7 in Billings. Manhattan Christian, which beat Arlee in the Western C title game, will be the top seed.
"It was a little bit of a relief," Pitts said of the feeling after beating Twin Bridges. "There was a lot of people hoping we’d lose. We’re one step closer. The loss to Manhattan Christian was a good reminder and good gut check to get us back to reality."
Twin Bridges closed the season at 24-2, losing to Western C state qualifiers Arlee and Manhattan Christian in the divisional tournament.