In their first trip to the Class C State Championship, the Warriors advance to the consolation finals and finish in fourth place
Undersized and underestimated, the Warriors made the improbable at the Class C State Championship not only seem imaginable, but expected as they became one of only four teams out of the 88 Class C teams that started the season to play Saturday night at the Billings MetraPark Rimrock Auto Arena.
Though the Warriors, who were the smallest team at the three-day tournament, never took a lead into the fourth quarter, they were at their best in the clutch and advanced to the consolation finals.
In the consolation finals against Culbertson, the team the Warriors came from behind to defeat 59-56 in the opening round, Arlee trailed 34-28 heading into the fourth quarter. The Warriors pulled within a single point with 28 seconds to play on Kasey Bridgewater’s fifth 3-pointer, but something as mundane as not boxing out killed their miraculous run and the Warriors were kept off the podium with a 43-41 season-ending loss.
“It’s a great accomplishment for the kids. It would have been great to get third and get that trophy, but we didn’t do that,” Arlee coach Clyde Tucker said. “Sometimes we get greedy, but it wasn’t there for us. There just wasn’t enough gas in the tank.”
The fourth-place finish was Arlee’s best finish at the tournament since finishing second at the Class B State Championship in 1995.
The trip to Billings was more than a year in the making for the Warriors. After losing to Shields Valley last year in the challenge game, the Warriors came together as a team and made it their goal to be one of the final eight Class C teams playing in the state. But when they took the court in the middle of the arena’s floor late Thursday night to take on the one-loss, third-ranked Culbertson Cowboys, the Warriors, the only team at the tournament with nobody taller 6-foot-2, not only had to convince probably the largest crowd that they’ve ever played in front of that they belonged there – they also had to convince themselves.
The Warriors missed their first six shots in the game and fell behind 7-0, before Kody Morigeau drained a jump shot at the top of the key midway through the quarter. After Morigeau’s jumper, the Warriors finished the quarter hitting six of their next seven shots, the last of them being a 3-pointer by Jesse Pfau at the buzzer to make it 22-14.
After the slow start, the Warriors went 12-for-23 from the field, including 2-for-4 shooting behind the arc, with both 3-pointers coming at the end of the quarters – Bridgewater knocked down a trey in the final seconds of the second quarter to cut the Cowboys’ lead to 34-27.
Cowboy guard Fred Lester scored 15 points in the first half on 5-for-7 3-point shooting. Blaming it on a bad scouting report before the game, which had the Warriors focusing on Wenden Martell, who finished with eight points, Tucker said that the Warriors made sure to stay on Lester in the second half. Lester went 0-for-6 on 3-pointers in the second half and only scored two points after the break.
“We made sure to have somebody on him and have a hand in his face whenever he got the ball. We didn’t lose sight of him,” Tucker said.
Heading into the final quarter trailing 45-43, Pfau scored the first six points in the quarter to give the Warriors their first lead and a lead they never would relinquish. Pfau finished with 17 points on 9-for-13 shooting.
After pushing the lead to 55-47 with just less than four minutes on a basket by Kyle Felsman, the Warriors committed three turnovers and missed two front ends of one-and-ones, allowing the Cowboys to close within 55-54 on a 3-pointer by Nicholas Oelkers with about 30 seconds to play.
Bridgewater, who finished with 10 points on 3-for-4 shooting from the field, pushed the lead back to three on a pair of free throws with 27.6 seconds to play. The Cowboys answered right back with an inside basket by their 6-foot-4 center Jackson Bolstad, then sent Warrior Thomas McClure to the line with 10.6 seconds to play.
McClure, a Warriors’ bench player who didn’t see much playing time at the district and divisional tournament because of an injured back, had just missed on a front end of an one-and-one 40 seconds earlier, calmly sank both free throws and then sealed the 59-56 upset by blocking Lester on a 3-point attempt. It was the junior’s second block of a Lester 3-pointer in the final minute.
“That was insane. It was so exhilarating. It’s just an overwhelming feeling,” McClure said after the game. Despite McClure’s excitement after the Warriors’ 24th victory of the season, he said he was calm when the game was on the line. “I just stayed relaxed. Right when I released it, I thought to myself, this is to advance in the state tournament,” said McClure, who finished with five points in 19 minutes.
Arlee went 24-for-45 (53 percent) from the field and had four players finish in double figures. Morigeau went 5-for-7 to finish with 12 points. Felsman, who led the team with six rebounds, added 10 points.
The victory against the Cowboys, set the Warriors against Power, the number one seed from the Northern C Division who entered the tournament with an 18-6 record, in the semifinal game Friday night, with the winner advancing to the finals to play Big Sandy.
The Warriors struggled from the field against the Pirates, just connecting on 17 of 52 shots (32.7 percent). Tucker said that they were taking what the Pirates were giving them instead of looking for their own shots. The Pirates would pack the middle and dare Morigeau to take a shot from outside, and the senior couldn’t pass up the wide-open look. Morigeau went 1-for-11 from the field, his only basket in the game gave the Warriors’ a 28-26 lead at 5:31 in the third quarter. After four-straight Pirate points, the Warriors would reclaim the lead on a 3-pointer by Kasey Bridgewater with about three minutes to play in the quarter. The Pirates closed out the quarter on a 11-2 run to take a 41-33 lead into the final quarter.
The Warriors made it 41-38 on a jump shot by Pfau at 6:09, but Power answered with a 3-pointer by Gus Somerfeld, who finished with 20 points. Arlee would pull within five on two separate occasions, but Power scored on seven of their last 11 possessions for a 59-48 championship-dashing victory.
After shooting 40 percent in the first half, the Pirates, who had two 6-foot-4 starters in the middle, started pounding the paint in the second half and shot 60 percent in the half. The Warriors were also outrebounded 37-24 in the game, with the Pirates pulling down 10 offensive boards.
Felsman led the Warriors with 15 points. Pfau, who had 10 points, was the only other Warrior to finish in double figures. Senior John Sansavere finished with nine points on 3-for-9 shooting from 3-point range.
With the loss, the Warriors faced Drummond early Saturday morning to decide who would play in the consolation finals. The last time the Warriors had faced the Trojans they had beat them in last year’s District 13-C championship game.