KALISPELL — They had to work hard at it — and it took a little longer than normal — but the Polson Pirates did punch their ticket to this weekend's Class A state basketball tournament.
The Pirates vaulted into Saturday's Northwestern A Divisional championship game at Glacier High in Kalispell with a 55-37 Friday evening semifinal victory over Libby. But a Columbia Falls Wildcat team that was feeling its oats overwhelmed the Pirates in the championship 60-46 Saturday night.
Since Polson hadn't beaten third-place Ronan, a challenge game was held Monday night at Glacier. And with a day of rest and the confidence of having beaten the Chiefs twice this year, the Pirates took care of business with a 54-38 win to lock up second and earn a trip to state.
Polson opens the Class A state tournament, to be held March 4-6 at the Butte Civic Center, with a 12:30 p.m. Thursday against Billings Central, the top seed from the Eastern A division.
The Pirates had a bit of the tournament jitters in their opening game against Libby. Post Tyler Krell hit a few buckets in Polson's 10-point first quarter, but the Pirates scored just seven points in the second quarter to fall behind 23-17 at the half.
"Offensively we struggled. Our kids were a bit too excited coming out of the gate," Polson head coach Brad Pluff said. "But in the second half we settled down a bit and stepped it up scoring. I've gotta give our kids a lot of credit for responding in the second half."
The Pirates found their range in a big way, combining for four three-pointers, two jump-shots and a lay-in to go with three free throws.
"In the third quarter, Tim (Rausch) hit a big one early and Sheldon (Fisher) hit some big shots late," Pluff noted. Louis Mohr also scored nine of his 16 points to key the middle of that third-quarter run.
The Pirates also shut down Libby, holding the Loggers to just two third-quarter points, a pair of free throws by Kelly May with 10 seconds remaining in the third.
After Libby's post Alex Cislo scored 12 first-half points, the Pirates created some help-defense to hold him to six second-half points.
With a 38-25 lead heading into the final frame, Polson continued to pull away with a 17-12 run in the fourth, cruising to the 55-37 win.
Seven players scored for Polson in the fourth, led by Fisher with a pair of treys.
"We worked hard to create some shots," Pluff noted. "And Kyle and Vince, our leading three-point shooters, didn't have one between them. But we still won by almost 20 and that's a good sign."
Mohr led Polson's scoring with 16 points, followed by 11 from Fisher and nine from Rausch.
The win set up Polson to take on top-seeded Columbia Falls in the championship game.
The Wildcats have only lost twice this season and they looked ready to make a run to state.
Columbia Falls took it inside early and successfully, then started to swish the long ball while Polson looked a little over-eager.
The Cats built a 12-2 lead three minutes into the first quarter before Kyle Bagnell drained a three-pointer at the 4:25 mark. Unfortunately, Columbia Falls' Michael Williams responded with another three just 13 seconds later.
And that's about how the rest of the game went. When Polson found a little seam or made a little progress, Columbia Falls would answer back with just a little more. Mohr's catch and shoot jumper from the free throw line at the 5:02 mark brought Polson within two (23-25), but Columbia Falls went on an efficient 5-1 run to take a 30-24 lead into the half.
In the third quarter, the Cats started to pull away, building a 17-point lead before Derrick Rathe hit a jumper at the 1:30 mark, followed by a pair of Bagnell three-pointers. Still, Columbia Falls took a 49-36 lead into the fourth.
In the fourth, the Pirates continued to shoot poorly, but they battled and slashed and followed up on misses. Krell got an offensive board and put-back at the 6:08 mark, then Rausch drove inside to draw the foul and sink two free throws at the 5:16 mark. Just 12 seconds later, Bagnell stole the ball and dashed down the court, drawing the foul and sinking one of two free throws to pull Polson back within eight (49-41) with 5:04 remaining in the game.
But that's as far as Polson's run went. Columbia Falls hit one jumper, then started pounding the rock back inside, either making the bucket or earning a trip to the line, keying a 11-5 final run for the 60-46 victory.
"They shot the ball really well in the first half and we were cold. We came out flying high and really jacked up. We have a bunch of football players and that's the way they come out," Pluff explained. "We didn't make a lot of shots and then we started forcing things and tried to do too much. We didn't execute very well down the stretch. We got within eight but couldn't get over the hump. But Columbia Falls had a lot to do with that ... They are coached well and very disciplined."
Pluff said his team tried to be physical with Columbia Falls, something the Wildcats are used to doing over other teams.
"They try to do that to everybody else. We're just not going to back down from them," Pluff explained. But what the game came down to was execution, he added. "We did a lot of things, execution-wise, that didn't go well. Sometimes you can get away with that but not against a team like Columbia Falls ... and they did what they were supposed to do."
Bagnell led Polson in the championship with 12 points, while Mohr had eight, Rausch had seven and Rathe netted six.
"Our best player was Derrick Rathe ... He didn't score a lot, but he played good defense and rebounded well, his best game of the year," Pluff noted.
The second-place team still earns a trip to state, but Ronan earned a chance to challenge Polson for that spot since they hadn't previously lost to the Pirates.
After a Sunday of rest and recuperation, both teams matched up at 6 p.m. back on the same Glacier High gym floor.
Pluff said his plan was to get the ball inside and take advantage of Polson's size against the smaller Ronan squad of mostly guards. Then, he said, they'd try to weather the storm of hustle from Ronan and wait for the offense to come to them.
His plan worked out fairly well. Ronan tried to take Mohr out of the high-post dish spot with a box-and-one defense. But Rausch picked up his driving and slashing for nine first-half points, Krell got a few looks down low, and Mohr found a way to score, putting up 10 points in the first half.
The Chiefs hustled and stayed within three of the Pirates, who took a 28-25 lead into the half.
But in the second half, the Chiefs' shot went south and Mohr continued to roll. While Ronan scored just five third quarter points and eight in the fourth, Mohr connected on eight more buckets to put up 28 points on the night as Polson pulled away for the 54-38 win.
The victory set up Polson's Thursday game against Billings Central, which will challenge the Pirates right off the bat.
"They're awful quick. They get up in your face and play man defense," Pluff said. "But, once you get to state, they're all good. There just aren't any easy games.
Northwestern A Divisional Tournament
Feb. 25-27, 2010
Polson 55, Libby 37
Libby 14 9 2 12–37
Polson 10 7 21 17–55
LIBBY - TJ Benson 4, Kelly May 4, Colton Cannon 3, Nate Broden 2, Alex Cislo 18, James Hare 4, Cree Maloney 2.
POLSON - Vince DiGiallonardo 4, Kyle Bagnell 6, Tim Rausch 9, Louis Mohr 16, Tyler Krell 6, Sheldon Fisher 11, Derrick Rathe 3.
Columbia Falls 60, Polson 46
Polson 15 9 12 10–46
C. Falls 21 9 19 11–60
POLSON - Vince DiGiallonardo 5, Kyle Bagnell 12, Tim Rausch 7, Louis Mohr 8, Tyler Krell 4, Sheldon Fisher 4, Derrick Rathe 6.
C. FALLS - Kyle Howell 18, Austin Barth 6, Mitchell Wassam 13, Kaleb Johnson 5, Michael Williams 10, Nick Emerson 7.
Polson 54, Ronan 38
Ronan 13 12 5 8–38
Polson 16 12 12 14–54
RONAN - Jerod Tanner 12, Marcus Hungerford 11, Lucus Black 3, Justin Dusty Bull 2, Kevin Wroblewski 7, Colten Cheff 2.
POLSON - Kyle Bagnell 6, Tim Rausch 9, Louis Mohr 28, Tyler Krell 4, Sheldon Fisher 3, Cody Fischer 2, Derrick Rathe 2.