By DAVID LESNICK
The Daily Inter Lake
The defending Class B state champion Bigfork boys basketball team has won five in a row.
The Columbia Falls girls cage crew, third-place finishers at the Class A state tournament a year ago, is riding a nine-game winning streak.
And both teams will be hoping to ride that momentum even further this weekend and two weekends from now with divisional and state tournament events the next two items on the calendar.
The Western A Divisional gets under way today in Hamilton.
Head north 101 miles on U.S. 93, the Western B Divisional also starts today in Ronan.
Both tournaments end Saturday evening.
The top four finishers, boys and girls, from Western A advance to state tournament action March 7-9 in Great Falls while it’s a bit tougher in Western B with just the top two teams, boys and girls, moving on to state March 7-9 in Bozeman.
The Bigfork boys and girls are defending Western B Divisional champions.
The Hamilton boys and Butte Central girls won the Western A Divisional titles last year.
Western A Divisional
At Hamilton High School
Columbia Falls brings an impressive 19-1 record to the divisional. The Wildkats finished second to Browning in the regular season, but captured the Northwest A District title last Saturday in Whitefish with a 55-49 victory over the Indians (16-5).
It was the third time the two schools met this season with Columbia Falls winning twice.
The first two meetings were decided by three points or less and included an overtime in one.
“Going back to last year, we have played them seven times,” Columbia Falls coach Cary Finberg said.
“When you play a good basketball team that many times, we know what they are going to do and they know what we are going to do. In those type of games, it will come down to a possession, or two.”
Joining those two teams from the district at divisional are the Libby and Ronan girls.
Columbia Falls opens divisional action today at 9:30 a.m. versus Corvallis (13-8). Those two teams meet back on Jan. 26 in Corvallis with Columbia Falls winning 50-35.
Browning is on the other side of the bracket and starts with Frenchtown (13-11) at 3:30 p.m. today.
Columbia Falls and Browning could meet again, if both make it to the championship game.
“Playing them has been beneficial for us,” Finberg said of Browning.
“Them coming over to the conference has helped out.”
Columbia Falls and Browning split their four meetings last season.
Regarding Corvallis …
“That game is over with,” he said of the 15-point victory.
“They are more than capable and proved that by winning the Southwest (A) Conference.”
Ryley Kehr, a 5-foot-11 senior guard, leads the Wildkats in scoring, averaging 16 points a game.
Trista Cowan, a 5-9 senior guard/forward, has a double-double average with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
Kehr is averaging seven rebounds, four assists and leads the state in steals with a 4.5 game average. She tied the single game state steal record against Polson earlier this season with 16. Kehr, who was the team’s sixth man on the state championship team her sophomore year, and Cowan are two-year starters.
Savvy Ellis, a 5-7 guard/forward, is the other veteran in the lineup. She’s a senior.
LaKia Hill, a 5-7 sophomore guard, and Josie Windauer, a 5-10 junior forward, completed the starting five.
“Ryley missed a game early in the year, but other than that, it’s been the same five for every game,” Finberg said.
“This year we are playing a lot more freshmen and sophomores than we have. I thought the learning curve would take a little longer, but the younger kids right off the bat didn’t have those freshmen and sophomore jitters we thought they would have. They were more ready, quicker learners than we thought. The didn’t play like freshmen and sophomores. They played with a lot of confidence. A lot of that has to do with the seniors, showing them how things are done. It’s been a fun group to work with all year.”
And that has led to the team’s success.
“The goal at the start of year was to get back to the state tournament,” Finberg said. “We’ll do it if we play well this weekend.”
Columbia Falls has finished third, or better, the last five years at state.
The Browning boys won the district title last week in Whitefish by defeating the 2018 district champ Polson in the final. Libby and Whitefish finished third and fourth, respectively to advance.
12:30 p.m. — Browning vs. Frenchtown
2 p.m. — Libby vs. Butte Central
6:30 p.m. — Polson vs. Dillon
8 p.m. — Hamilton vs. Whitefish
6:30 and 8 p.m.
9:30 a.m. — Columbia Falls vs. Corvallis
11 a.m. — Libby vs. Hamilton
3:30 p.m. — Browning vs. Frenchtown
5 p.m. — Ronan vs. Butte Central
3:30 and 5 p.m.
Western B Divisional
At Ronan Events Center
No perfect season for Bigfork this time around as the Vikings, 24-0 a year ago, have two losses — at Deer Lodge and versus Missoula Loyola at home — to go with 16 victories. But back-to-back state titles are a reality.
“We don’t have the height we did last year, but we make up for that (in other ways),” Bigfork coach Sam Tudor said. “The last few games especially, we have been coming together.”
Logan Gilliard, a 6-4 senior forward, leads the Vikings offense with his 18.3 points per game average.
Anders Epperly, a 5-10 senior guard and four-year starter, is averaging 13.9 points.
“He’s gotten physically stronger,” Tudor said of Epperly over the course of his career. “He’s shooting the ball better. He’s always been a great passer, but now he’s starting to score more.”
Epperly broke the all-class state assists record on Jan. 18 at Bigfork with 12 in a 72-49 victory over Mission. That gave him 699, passing the old mark of 691.
That victory was also the 100th for Tudor at Bigfork in five seasons.
Clayton Reichenbach, a 6-2 senior guard, and Colton Reichenbach, a 6-2 senior forward, are next in scoring with 10.3 and 9.7, respectively.
“The two twins have made a difference for us (this year),” Tudor said.
“They are hard to account for.”
On the two losses …
“Deer Lodge tries to slow it down and it worked well for them (against us),” Tudor said. “Loyola is a very athletic team, probably one of the most athletic teams in the state of any class.”
And Bigfork could not match up with that in either game.
Bigfork opens play 7:20 p.m. today versus Anaconda. The Vikings won the only meeting between those two teams 59-32.
“They have some nice shooters and good players,” Tudor said of Anaconda. “They are really well coached.
“Being a part of this, with the boys I’ve had for four years,” he said of the highlight this season. “We know each other so well. I just hope to go out on a positive note.”
On the girls side of the divisional, Eureka hopes its best season since 2012-13 continues into March. The Lions went 6-0 in district play, 13-5 overall.
“We like to play fast, pressure people full court,” Eureka coach Ryan Holder said.
“That’s been our signature this year.”
Eureka nearly closed with a double-digit win streak, but it was halted after nine games by Missoula Loyola. The Lions dropped the season finale at Florence, winners of 15 straight.
The Lions open divisional play at the challenging hour of 8 a.m. versus Anaconda.
“We have been having morning practices this week to get ready for it,” Holder said.
“The girls like morning practices in general, are not too upset with an 8 a.m. game.”
Eureka and Anaconda (5-13) played once during the regular season with Eureka winning 44-37 in Eureka. Sienna Utter, a 5-7 senior guard, carried the offensive load for the Lions in that one with 24 points.
Utter, who is averaging 15.1 points per game, scored her 1,000th career point three weeks later at home versus Troy. She needed 26, but tallied a season- and career-high 31.
Maggie Graves, a 5-11 junior post, is also having a standout season, averaging 10 points and nine rebounds per game.
Junior point guard Megan Hanson is averaging seven points, but averaged 10 points per game in district play.
“She has exploded on the scene for us this year and has done really well,” Holder said of Hanson.
“It’s a hard-working group,” he said of the team overall.
“They have bought into winning and worked hard in the offseason. It has paid off.”
Holder said there are as many as five teams that will be battling for the two state tournament berths this weekend.
“I think we’re playing well right now,” he said. “I like our chances.”
The last time Eureka advanced to state was the 2005-06 season.
11:20 a.m. — Missoula Loyola vs. Florence-Carlton
1 p.m. — Deer Lodge vs. Thompson Falls
7:20 p.m. — Bigfork vs. Anaconda
9 p.m. — Eureka vs. Mission
7:20 and 9 p.m.
8 a.m. — Eureka vs. Anaconda
9:40 a.m. — Thompson Falls vs. Missoula Loyola
4 p.m. — Florence vs. Mission
5:40 p.m. — Deer Lodge vs. Bigfork
4 and 5:40 p.m.