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Under the radar

Overlooked Polson Pirates sail into championship game at state Class A basketball tournament

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BUTTE — The Polson Pirates saved the best for last. 

Finishing second at divisionals and working through an up and down basketball season, the Pirates put it all together for one final and very successful run. 

With just about everyone talking about every other team's possibilities at last week's Class A state basketball tournament, the Pirates quietly and confidently upset their way into the championship game. Polson beat the top seed from the east, Billings Central 65-53 in the first round, then upset Butte Central 56-50 in Friday's semifinal game. 

But, after a long six-and-a-half-minute lull in scoring in the fourth quarter, the Pirates succumbed to Laurel 60-48 in the title tilt to end Polson's post-season run. Still, the Pirates returned home with a second-place trophy that few other than the Polson faithful envisioned was possible. 

"We had the worst record in the field and teams look at that," Polson head coach Brad Pluff said. "It's tough to scout teams, especially up in the east. It's tough to get video so I was calling people for a scouting report and I'm sure those guys were going through that. I'm sure they looked at our (12-9) record ... (but) I'll bet they didn't know we were missing guys until after the first 13 games. We were a much better team than our record said. And, yeah, we were kinda under the radar a bit."

Everybody heard about guard Kyle Bagnell, a junior, averaging a league-high 17.5 points per game. But senior teammate Tim Rausch wasn't far back, averaging 12.3 ppg. Sophomore point guard Vince DiGiallonardo averaged 10 ppg and was second in three-point shooting in the league at 2.22 threes per game behind Bagnell's 2.33.

Few teams knew how much sophomore post Tyler Krell had improved in the paint this year, and hardly any realized what an impact Louis Mohr had at the high post and what an important role guard Sheldon Fisher played off the bench. Mohr and Fisher didn't rejoin the team until after completion of an academic suspension midway through the season. 

All of those factors played into the change and improvement of the Pirates that was beyond what their record and the stats sheet represented. 

Polson may have had a little bit of history on its side, too. The Pirates had won two previous state championships in 1993 and 1998, both in the Butte Civic Center, the site of this year's tournament. Even stranger, assistant coach Bob Hislop noted, was that in both those years Polson came in as the second seed from the Northwestern A.

The bracket also favored Polson. Billings Central, just 12-8, earned the top spot from the east after edging Laurel in the Eastern A Divisional game. That put three of the top five ranked teams in the state in the other side of the bracket, with top-ranked Laurel against second-ranked Columbia Falls battling in the first round. Filling out the rest of the bottom half was third-ranked Browning and fourth-ranked Dillon.

"We were definitely in the right side of the bracket ... but all of those teams (in the top of the bracket) deserved to be there," Pluff said. "Butte Central beat Browning twice, Billings Central played Laurel tough, and Corvallis beat us handily earlier in the year. Nothing is easy at state. We knew we were going to play the toughest teams of the year other than Columbia Falls. But we thought they were winnable ... We went into every game thinking we could win. We thought we matched up with Laurel well, but we didn't play well enough to win." 
So despite how their record stacked up, the Pirates came in with a bit more of a chance than most folks would have given them. And with no 800-pound gorilla of expectation on their back, they really didn't have anything to lose. 
They played that way, too.
In the tournament opener against Billings Central at 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, Polson spent the first eight minutes getting over that wide-eyed, first-ever-trip-to-state jitters. The Pirates pounded the rock inside to Krell for a couple of buckets in the paint, but turnovers cut short scoring opportunities for Polson over the first six minutes.
Late threes by Rausch and Vince DiGiallonardo kept Polson within range of the hot-shooting Rams, who led 18-12 at the end of the first quarter. 
Billings Central showed a lot of power and quickness with its forwards, especially Connor Novakovich, and post Connor Cunningham. Novakovich and Cole Cattelan found or created openings off the dribble against Polson's man-to-man defense in the first half. Though they cooled off a little in the second quarter, Billings Central built an 11-point lead (25-14) midway through the second.
But Polson started to find its jump shot over the final four minutes of the first half. Rausch busted a three, Krell made a bucket inside and converted a foul shot, DiGiallonardo hit a five-foot floater and Mohr hit a jumper in the paint to pull the Pirates within seven (31-24) at the half.
At halftime, coach Pluff knew he needed to switch up his defense.
"We thought we matched up very well with them man to man, but they were much quicker than we thought," Pluff explained. "We knew we had to get out of that man and got to matchup zone. In the games I saw them play on tape nobody played them zone. So, I don't think they saw a lot of (zone) ... and I think that was the key to the game."
Polson's zone started to slow down Billings Central's scoring opportunities while Rausch jumpstarted the Pirates offense in the second half, scoring two buckets inside off slashes into the paint and another on a layup after a steal. Krell hit two more shots in the paint on back-to-back trips down the floor, cutting the Rams' lead to four (38-34) with four minutes to go in the third.
Then Mohr, who had sat out much of the third quarter after picking up his third foul, started to assert himself on offense, scoring four field goals over the final four minutes of the third quarter to tie the game 44-44 heading into the fourth.
"We felt like we had an advantage with Louis (Mohr) and Novakovich, so we thought we'd use that late," Pluff said. " And we took advantage of it and Louis made some big shots ... he's tough to guard one on one."
The coach called a "Four out Louis," which called for everyone else to back out to the perimeter and let Mohr post up on his man from the high post. Mohr either hit a 10-footer or drove to the rack, whichever he felt confident with. If the lane was closed off, he'd kick out to an open man. But his coach was right about the matchup and he didn't need to kick it very often.
Mohr found a cutting Rausch early in the fourth and Rausch drove to the basket for a layup on the following drive, but a Mohr jumper from the free throw line at the 5:39 mark broke the ice for Polson as the Pirates took their first lead of the game, 50-49. 
And Polson continued to score, with a couple of Bagnell drives and layups, and a DiGiallonardo three and a pull-up jumper. Meanwhile Polson's defense really stepped it up, holding the Rams to zero field goals over the final seven minutes of the game. Billings Central managed just four free throws, while Polson closed out the 65-53 victory with a stretch of 8-for-11 shooting from the charity stripe over the final two minutes of the game.
All five Polson starters scored in double-figures, including Mohr with 19 points, Rausch with 13, Bagnell with 12, Krell with 11 and DiGiallonardo with 10. Mohr was 7-for-10 inside the arc, 1-for-3 from three-point range, and was 4-for-4 from the line. 
Rausch led Polson with eight rebounds and Krell notched three blocks. 
"That was such a well-balanced game. If you could bottle that up we'd be hard to beat," coach Pluff said. "Louis scored a lot of big baskets for us, but everybody played well. I was really proud of our boys. None of these kids had played at state and they went in a little wide-eyed, but we shot in the neighborhood of 60 percent (56.5 percent) in our first game and that's just outstanding."
It was an emotional win for the Pirates, who moved into a Friday night semifinal against Butte Central, the top seed from the Central A. Both teams were showing the effects of hard-fought first round games as defense dominated the low-scoring first half of the game. 
Polson a lot of shots early, but took an early 7-0 lead over the first three and a half minutes of the game. Butte Central finally got on the board with a mid-range jump shot off the elbow at the 4:14 mark.
The Pirates built a 20-18 first half lead off some hard work in the paint. Krell scored all seven of his points in those first two quarters but not without a battle. Midway through the second quarter, Butte Central's Jonathon Richards drew a foul when he literally threw Krell through the floor.
"Tyler had a pretty good weekend and he's only a sophomore. They did concentrate a little more on him, but Tyler held his own against their big guy and kicked it out well," his coach said.
Polson shot 35 percent from the floor but that success was tempered by 12 first-half turnovers. Meanwhile, Butte Central shot miserably at 22 percent and was fortunate to make eight of 10 free throws to keep it close at the half.
"In the first half, we were probably a little tired and our shots were a little off," Pluff said.
"Until you experience it you can't understand how it feels to play at state. We were trying to find our legs and still a little wide-eyed. There were just so many people there ... it just took some adjusting for the boys early on." 
Rausch was working hard, but had a tough, tough night scoring. He slashed and battled and drove as hard as usual, but went 0-for-14 from the floor. He did, however, go a perfect 6-for-6 from the free throw line.
"Tim had a tough, tough night. He was 0-14 in that game, but had eight rebounds and led us with four assists," Pluff noted. "He's such a competitor and wants to win so bad. And sometimes he wants to help too much, forces shots and then it snowballs. But he plays so hard and it was just one of those nights for him ... it happens to everybody." 
But while Rausch struggled to score, his teammates picked up the slack in the second half. 
The Maroons weren't going away easy, however. They busted two quick three-balls to open the third quarter and take a 27-20 lead two and a half minutes into the second half.
But Polson responded with three-balls of their own from Bagnell and Sheldon Fisher to retake the lead. A second trey by Bagnell at the 1:10 mark gave Polson a 35-29 before Butte Central closed it to within two (35-31) over the final 30 seconds of the quarter.
Butte Central opened the fourth quarter with 7-2 run to retake the lead, but Rausch hit Mohr on an alley-oop pass, which Mohr caught near the rim and in midair softly laid the ball into the basket at the 5:45 mark. Mohr was fouled and made the free throw to tie the game at 40-40.
Polson retook the lead (45-40) with a three-pointer by DiGiallonardo and two free throws by Rausch. But then both teams went stone cold from the floor and three Butte Central free throws over the final two minutes tied the game 45-45 to force overtime.
Over the final four minutes, Mohr stepped his game up a notch. He started with an offensive rebound of his own miss and put-back, then made a frozen-rope bounce pass through traffic to find DiGiallonardo on a backdoor layup. 
Butte Central's Andy Ritter hit a three-pointer to close Polson's lead to 49-48, but Mohr drove off the left elbow for a bucket and a free throw for an old-fashioned three-point play to make it 52-48 with 1:35 to go. 
The Maroons' Richards sank two free throws at the 1:15 mark to cut Polson's lead back to two (52-50). A missed Polson jump shot with 53 seconds looked to give Butte Central a chance to tie the game back up, but Fisher attacked the board and hauled in a huge rebound to give the Pirates the ball and control of their own destiny.
Polson called a time-out and set up a jumper by Mohr with 28 seconds to go, giving Polson a 54-50 lead. Those two plays put the Pirates in command for good.
"Sheldon (Fisher) ran down that rebound and we got to set up that 14-footer that pretty much broke their back," coach Pluff emphasized.
Butte Central's Richards missed a three-pointer and Rausch hauled in the rebound, drawing and foul and sinking both free throws for a 56-50 Polson lead with 10 seconds remaining. After another three-point miss by Richards, Polson celebrated their semifinal victory and a trip into Saturday night's championship game.
Mohr finished with 20 points and 11 rebounds, while Bagnell put up 10 points, seven boards and two steals. 
Coach Pluff said it wasn't just happenstance that Mohr took charge of Polson's scoring in that overtime period.
"Louis craves the ball when the pressure is on ... he just wants the ball and wants to be the guy," Pluff said. "Louis wants the ball when the game is on the line and that's saying a lot for him." 
Pluff emphasized again what a big rebound Fisher made when his team needed it the most. That play helped offset a four-turnover night the guard had Thursday in the first half.
"He was being defended by a stud (Zach Kasperick) ... but that kid is probably still having nightmares about Sheldon's defense of him," Pluff said. "I had a talk with Sheldon on Friday and he responded well ... and got some big rebounds for us Friday night and Saturday."
Pluff also credited his team's man-to-man defensive effort against a very good shooting team that shot just 27 percent from the floor.
"When you talk to college coaches they focus a lot on shooting percentage of opposing teams. They may not have shot well, but a lot of that was our kids on defense," Pluff said.
"We still should have won the game in regulation ... We had a lot of kids foul out (Krell and Derrick Rathe) and we were awful small. But we got every big rebound in overtime. With Vince in foul trouble (four fouls), without our kids in the paint, we still pulled it out. We dug down and found a way to win."
The Pirates vaulted into the Saturday night's championship game against top-ranked Laurel.
Both teams were greeted by a sea of purple, each school's color, and excitement of the state championship game was predictably thick enough to spread on a Butte Pork Chop John's sandwich.
Both teams started out throwing the basketball equivalent of haymakers at each other.
Right from the get-go, and to no one's surprise, Laurel's David Swecker started launching NBA range three-balls. His teammate, Jake McKinney wasn't far behind either. The pair accounted for 12 of Laurel's 15 first-quarter points. 
But the Pirates were matching the Locomotives shot for shot. After Bagnell hit a jump shot from the left elbow 30 seconds into the game, Polson reeled off three-pointers by Mohr, DiGiallonardo, Mohr and Rathe to trail by just one, 15-14, at the end of the first quarter.
"Derrick Rathe doesn't show up in the stats a lot, but that kid does everything I ask him to do. He goes in and gets rebounds and hits a three-pointer in the championship game," coach Pluff stressed. "He and Tim (Rausch) are such strong leaders ... Tim is more of a vocal leader, but Derrick just plays his butt off. What Derrick did for this team this year was incredible. The true sign of what a leader he is was when Louis (Mohr) came back and took Derrick's spot in the starting lineup. I was worried about that, but Derrick made that very, very easy for me. All he said was "Whatever it takes to win, coach.'"
In the second quarter, buckets inside by Rausch and Krell opened up a 19-15 Polson lead, but Swecker and McKinney led Laurel on a 19-3 run. DiGiallonardo's late three-pointer with 40 seconds to go in the second quarter cut Laurel's halftime lead to 34-25, but the message had been sent loud and clear to coach Pluff. Polson's 1-3-1 zone defense was just not extending far enough out on the wings to get on Laurel's shooters.
"We knew that (Swecker) wasn't afraid of shooting. We knew that he would shoot from anywhere at anytime. We started out at 1-3-1 but we're not used to guarding someone that far out. Once we went man in the second half we did a better job," Pluff said. "We knew about McKinney, too, but we didn't know he was that good. They've got a very good basketball team ... and that night was their night."
While Polson's defensive adjustment curtailed Laurel's outside shot, the Locomotives shifted its touches to post Sean Condon, who scored all 13 of his points in the second half.
"When they put (Condon) inside, we tried to help Tyler (Krell) as much as possible. Tyler did a good job, but when we helped out, then McKinney took advantage of that (sagging defense)." 
The three-ball kept Polson in the game in the third quarter, with treys by Bagnell and DiGiallonardo. Bagnell also made a bucket on a break, then two free throws off a technical foul at the 5:20 mark when McKinney slammed his shoe into the middle of the court after the layup. McKinney had lost the shoe during the missed rebound on Laurel's end of the floor and was apparently upset that the officials didn't stop play while he put his shoe on. 
A minute later, DiGiallonardo hit another three to tie the game at 36-36 and both teams countered each other's shots through the end of the third with Laurel leading 43-41.
Then a stiff, cold wind blew into the Civic Center, the kind that freezes momentum and ices over an iceberg of a lid on the basket. Unfortunately, it locked in on Polson's end of the floor for a good six and a half minutes and wouldn't let go.
The Pirates went stone cold from the floor, missing every attempt from the floor until Rausch broke the ice with a free throw with just 1:37 remaining in the game. By that time, Laurel had shot its way to a 53-42 lead, a hole that the Pirates couldn't climb out of. Forced to foul and hope for misses, Polson made three more buckets down the stretch but Laurel went 7-for-10 from the line to clinch the championships with a 60-48 win.
Mohr led Polson with 13 points, while DiGiallonardo and Bagnell notched 11 apiece. Rausch finished the night with seven points and four assists.
"They played that 1-2-2 half-court trap to slow us down ... so we couldn't just run up the floor. And it was pretty effective. Then they switched to man after we got over half-court," Pluff explained. "We had a couple of stretches where we didn't execute very well ... we play so much better when we make that extra pass. Then in the fourth quarter everybody thought 'I'd better get some shots up' ... and it just snowballed."
To Pluff, making the extra pass, which his team did in the second quarter, but didn't in the third, made the difference in the outcome.
"Against lesser teams we can get away with (quick shots). But, like I told the kids at the half, this is Laurel and they are 21-3. If we don't do this right, we're going to get our butts kicked," the coach said. "But then we went into a lull. And give Laurel credit, they had a lot to do with that. There's a reason they were ranked number one. If we'd got a few shots to fall and built up some confidence, we could have had a good chance. But you miss, they score and it snowballs on you. We knew if we got behind it would be difficult ... and it was."
Still, Pluff said that fourth quarter doesn't overshadow all that his team accomplished at state, bringing home some hardware when few thought they were capable.
"I'm real proud of how the kids responded. If a few things different in the fourth quarter, well, I can't say how proud I am of the boys," Pluff emphasized. "Of course you want to win every game ... but if you'd asked the kids before the tournament deep down inside if they thought they'd be in the championship they wouldn't have said that. They've got nothing to hang their heads over. They played their butts off. I knew they were capable and they put it together at the right time."
Polson will lose Rausch and Rathe to graduation, but he's got a solid, experienced core returning that now has an firm understanding of what the state tournament is all about.
"We should be tough next year. Our freshman team did well this year and I'm really looking forward to working with this group again next year," Pluff said. "You can't teach competitiveness and that's what we have here — a lot of great athletes who hate to lose. You can't get any better than that."
Montana State Class A Basketball Championship
Butte Civic Center
March 4-6, 2010
First round
Polson 65, Billings Central 53
Polson 12 12 20 21–65
Billings C. 18 13 13 9–53
POLSON - Vince DiGiallonardo 10, Kyle Bagnell 12, Tim Rausch 13, Louis Mohr 19, Tyler Krell 11.
BILLINGS CENTRAL - Kevin O’Brien 6, Connor Cunningham 16, Cole Cattelan 10, Jacob Stanton 2, Connor Novakovich 15, Lucas Blehm 4. 
Polson 56, Butte Central 50
Polson 11 9 15 10 11–56
Butte C. 10 8 15 12 5–50
POLSON - Vince DiGiallonardo 7, Kyle Bagnell 10, Tim Rausch 6, Louis Mohr 20, Tyler Krell 7, Sheldon Fisher 3, Derrick Rathe 3.
BUTTE CENTRAL - Andy Ritter 11, Aschan Richards 2, Sean Ferriter 2, Jonathan Richards 25, Phil Antonioli 3, Zach Kasperick 7.
Laurel 60, Polson 48
Laurel 15 19 9 17–60
Polson 14 11 16 7–48
LAUREL - Jake Miller 4, Quinn McGrath 3, Jake McKinney 20, David Swecker 13, Sean Condon 13, Brian Flokoetter 4, Derek Budge 3.
POLSON - Vince DiGiallonardo 11, Kyle Bagnell 11, Tim Rausch 7, Louis Mohr 13, Tyler Krell 3, Derrick Rathe 2. 

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