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Final four

In their first trip to the Class C State Championship, the Warriors advance to the consolation finals and finish in fourth place

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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.

There was little doubt how the Warriors were going to respond to the loss to Power. Just a week ago at the Western C Divisional Tournament, after losing the opening game to defending state champs Twin Bridges, the Warriors rattled off four straight wins to earn the school’s first berth in the Class C State Championship.
The Warriors jumped out on the Trojans early, taking a 19-5 lead on a 3-pointer by Sansavere at 5:58 in the second quarter. After closing the first half on a 11-6 run, the Trojans tied the game at 33 on a 3-pointer by Neil Mannix with less than a minute to play in the third quarter and the game was knotted at 35 heading into the final quarter.
Exemplifying the resilience of the Warriors, Morigeau scored eight of his team-high 18 points in the fourth quarter and the Warriors pulled away for a 59-55 victory.
Arlee went 22-for-44 from the field and had four players finish in double figures in scoring.
Sansavere and Bridgewater both finished with 11 points. Bridgewater went 4-for-4 at the line in the fourth quarter, with all four foul shots coming in the final minute. Pfau finished with 10 points and led the team with seven assists.
The victory set up a rematch with Culbertson, who was playing in the consolation final for the third year in a row. They finished in fourth place the past two years. The game against the Cowboys was not only the Warriors’ second game of the day, it was also their ninth in 10 days.
Playing on fumes, the Warriors didn’t look as sharp as they did in the first game, but the long ball kept them in the game. The Warriors went 8-for-16 from 3-point range. Sansavere hit a pair of 3-pointers at the end of the third quarter to pull the Warriors within six (34-28). 
Bridgewater, who finished with a game-high 17 points, drained two of his five 3-pointers in the final three minutes. After his last 3-pointer made it 42-41, the Warriors sent Martell to the line. After making his first shot, Martell missed his second free throw but the Warriors failed to hold onto the ball and the Cowboys got another chance at the line. Cowboy Alex Weeks missed the front end of an one-on-one with 10.5 seconds left, but the Cowboys pulled down the rebound and held onto the ball in the final seconds for the 43-41 victory.
The Cowboys finished with 13 offensive rebounds in the game and outrebounded Arlee 32-21.
“It was their (Culbertson) third year playing in the third-fourth game and they had finished in four both times before. I think they may have wanted third a little bit more than we did,” Tucker said. “Playing nine games in 10 days may have had something to do with it too.”
Playing in his final game as a Warrior, Felsman finished with 11 points and led Arlee with six rebounds. If Felsman would have finished with 14 points, the Warriors may have been able to bring the third-place trophy home with them.
The Warriors were trailing 42-38 with 55 seconds left to play, when Felsman drove to the basket for a layup. With a Cowboy draped all over his back, the senior crashed into another Cowboy underneath the basket. Instead of an and-one situation, which Tucker said it should have been, Felsman was called for a charge and the points were wiped off the scoreboard.
Felsman and Bridgewater were the only Warriors to finish in double figures. After scoring 17 against the Cowboys in the first game, Pfau, who played all 128 minutes at the tournament, finished with five.
“If we don’t get that balance scoring, we’re going to be in trouble,” Tucker said.
Felsman said that when they beat Culbertson in the first game, they even surprised themselves, but soon realized that they could play with every team at the tournament.
“To place fourth is a little let down. There will always be the feeling in the back of the head that you could’ve have done it,” Felsman said.
The Warriors (25-4) could have done it, despite not having a player taller than 6-foot-2 and no true star on the team. Playing under the banner “one team,” the Warriors truly were greater than the sum of all their parts.
“When they play together and play hard and do all the little things right. How can you not be satisfied with all they accomplished,” Tucker said.
“...We just know how to win. We have a full team and don’t rely on that one player to win the game,” said Felsman, who was one of four Warriors to lead Arlee in scoring at the tournament.
Arlee 59, Culbertson 56
Culbertson 22 12 11 11–56
Arlee 14 13 16 16–59
CULBERTSON - Fred Lester 17, Nicholas Oelkers 10, Alex Weeks 10, Wenden Martell 8, Jackson Bolstad 9, Tanner Shanks 2.
ARLEE - Kasey Bridgewater 10, Kyle Felsman 10, Jesse Pfau 17, John Sansavere 2, Kody Morigeau 12, Thomas McClure 5, Trae Burland 3.
Power 59, Arlee 48
Power 10 14 17 18–59
Arlee 11 10 12 15–48
POWER - Hayden Vick 20, Nolan Vick 5, Gus Somerfeld 20, Travis Somerfeld 8, Willy VandenBos 6.
ARLEE - Kasey Bridgewater 8, Kyle Felsman 15, Jesse Pfau 10, John Sansavere 9, Kody Morigeau 3, Trae Burland 3.
Arlee 59, Drummond 55
Drummond 5 14 16 20–55
Arlee 13 10 12 24–59
DRUMMOND - Connor Verlanic 2, Nate Bignell 13, Parker Bignell 8, Jordan Mannix 3, Neil Mannix 22, Gage Martell 4, Bryan Mannix 2, Maclane Bignell 1.
ARLEE - Kasey Bridgewater 11, Kyle Felsman 4, Jesse Pfau 10, John Sansavere 11, Kody Morigeau 18, Thomas McClure 4, Trevor Rubel 1.
Culbertson 43, Arlee 41
Culbertson 10 18 6 9–43
Arlee 7 11 10 13–41
CULBERTSON - Fred Lester 7, Nick Oelkers 10, Alex Weeks 15, Wenden Martell 6, Jackson Bolstad 4, Colton Bidegaray 1.
ARLEE - Kasey Bridgewater 17, Kyle Felsman 11, Jesse Pfau 4, John Sansavere 6, Trae Burland 3.

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