BILLINGS -- Three, two, one.
The Havre Blue Ponies completed their Eastern A girls divisional countdown Saturday night, winning the tournament title with a 42-34 win over the Hardin Bulldogs.
It was hard won, the two teams similar in styles, and when the Blue Ponies walked off the Rimrock Auto Arena floor at MetraPark clutching the first-place trophy, it finished a three-year assault on the crown.
When the Eastern A and Central A first combined their divisional tournament three years ago, the Blue Ponies took third. Last season, second place was in the cards as the Ponies watched Hardin take the title. Now, it’s going to Havre.
“It was fast, it was close, it was crazy,” said Havre sophomore Kyndall Keller, still a little winded even after emerging from the Blue Ponies’ locker room. “I can’t believe it. All of our hard work is starting to pay off, so I’m so excited.”
Keller finished with 15 points, 14 of them coming in the first half. Danielle Wallace added 14 points and 13 rebounds. Ten of her points came from the free throw line, where Havre scored 20 of its points overall.
Havre’s victory kept the Blue Ponies, No. 1 in the 406mtsports.com rankings, unbeaten going into the state tournament, which is in two weeks. Their 21-0 record looks shiny, but coach Dustin Kraske said his team had to grind out its last two victories, a semifinal win over Laurel and Saturday’s title game.
“It makes us a little more mature, makes us handle it when the sun’s not shining per se,” said Kraske, who has taken the Blue Ponies to state 11 of the 12 seasons he’s been at Havre. “You have to make some plays, make some adjustments … this is absolutely great for us. It makes us a way, way better team.”
Hardin, ranked fourth, only had leads of 2-0 and 4-2. Still, the game was never really out of reach, though the Blue Ponies proved to be as cantankerous on defense as the Bulldogs. In fact, Havre (7) had more steals than Hardin (4), which had 33 in its first two tournament games.
Marie Five scored 13 points to lead the Bulldogs, who shot just 26 percent.
“I think we were playing a little bit scared, playing not to lose instead of playing to win,” said Hardin coach Cindy Farmer, who also credited Havre’s defense. “I don’t know if they were intimidated or whatever. We had some runs, but we just couldn’t get anything going.”
Kraske has said in the past he didn’t know if he’d be a big fan of playing the newly devised divisional annually in Billings’ big barn. Turns out, the Blue Ponies have done all right.
“Billings has been treating us well,” he said. “Our kids enjoy playing at the Metra. We don’t enjoy staying at a motel for a week, but we’re enjoying coming down here and playing.”
Belgrade 44, Glendive 32
Two days earlier the Belgrade Panthers looked down. They had lost their Eastern A Divisional first-round tournament game and didn't look pretty doing it.
Plus, Gabby Weber, the team's leading scorer, didn't seem too confident playing on a gimpy ankle. But 48 hours later, early Saturday evening at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark, the Panthers were holding the tournament's third-place trophy after winning their next three games, the latest a 44-32 win over the Glendive Red Devils.
Earlier Saturday the Panthers clinched their second consecutive trip to the Class A state tournament with a consolation semifinal win over Laurel.
"I just said, relax, play, have fun. You know, the pressure's off right now," Belgrade coach Sarah Fowler said about the third-place game. "Just do what we've been doing other than Thursday and finish and see what happens."
Weber, who missed three games at the end of the regular season with her injury, scored a game-high 15 points and Bailey Christensen finished with 10. Kiah Hohenstein, who made her mark with 10 3-pointers in the tournament, this game grabbed 10 rebounds.
During the late stages of a 41-22 loss to Hardin on Thursday to start the tournament, the body language on the Belgrade bench showed a level of dejection. Fowler admitted she sensed defeat from her team.
"Because we got beat in Hardin just the week before and I think ... I don't know if we were expecting to get our butts kicked or what, but it just didn't seem quite right," Fowler said. "But I think Friday's game (a 52-32 win over Livingston), playing somebody we know and we know we can beat, that built their confidence. And we took care of business and have been since."
Glendive, playing its sixth game of the tournament, trailed by as many as 16 in the third quarter. The Red Devils were within 36-29 with just under two minutes to play, but Weber made eight straight free throws to close it out for the Panthers (11-11).
Karsen Murphy had 12 points to lead the Red Devils (10-14).
Glendive 57, Billings Central 43
With just under a minute to play in Saturday morning's consolation semifinal, the Glendive student section began chanting, "Going to state! Going to state!"
Judging by the smiles on the Red Devils bench players at that moment, it was setting in that, yes, Glendive's girls would be playing at the state tournament for the first time since the 2008-09 season.
Savannah Toms and Kendra Kaufman both scored 15 points, and Karsen Murphy added 10 as the Red Devils beat Billings Central 57-43.
Glendive, which was playing its fifth game of the tournament and became the first to play six at the divisional later in the day, entered the week as the No. 5 seed from the East.
"I just honestly can't even find the words," said coach Kayla Rivas, a former Red Devil, as she fought back tears. "I am so proud of them. They just accomplished something that no other team has done before and in four hours we're going to play our sixth game of this tournament and you would never guess it."
The Red Devils pulled away in the second half after leading 28-22 at the break.
"We've had a lot of close losses this year, but this is a testament to every single one of them they learned something from," Rivas said. "When they had a chance to do something differently, they took advantage of it."
Central, which entered the tournament as the top seed from the East, finished the season 13-8. Isabelle Erickson led the Rams with 10 points.
Belgrade 50, Laurel 45
Kiah Hohenstein hit a 3-pointer with 56 seconds left and Belgrade held on for a 50-45 victory over Laurel in the other consolation semifinal at Rocky Mountain College. The win sent the Panthers into the third-place game against Glendive and punched their ticket to the state tournament in two weeks.
Hohenstein continued her stellar tournament with a 21-point performance, 13 of which came in the fourth quarter which Belgrade opened trailing 35-31. Belgrade began the game hot and led Laurel 23-19 by halftime.
“It was a close one and we knew it would be. Laurel is a great team with great guard play and they’re just really aggressive,” Belgrade coach Sarah Fowler said. “They came out in the second half and picked it and it took us a few minutes to figure things out. We’ve struggled the past couple of weeks so it's been good to see this the past couple of games where we’re turning it around and playing well.”
The Locomotives charged back in the third thanks in large part to Aspen and Maeson Cotter, who scored 15 and 10 points, respectively.
Gabby Weber went one 1 for 2 at the free throw line for Belgrade to make it 48-45. The Locomotives got a couple of shots off but were unable to score again as the time expired. Hohenstein sealed it with two free throws with 10 seconds left.
“(Hohenstein) did the same thing last year. She started out the season pretty well but she’s been in this little lull where her shot hasn’t been falling. Lot of close in and outs,” Fowler said. “So it’s good to see that she’s hitting some shots again this weekend.”
— 406mtsports.com sports reporter Kyle Hansen also contributed to this story