Columbus Lady Cougars head to state following huge divisional tournament win

Mikaela Koski
Thursday, March 7, 2019

SCN photo by Mikaela Koski

Morgan Kirch (left) andAlexa Riveland celebrate in the moment of winning the Southern B Divisional championship game.

2 for 2

The Columbus Lady Cougars were determined to advance past the district tournament this year. No one on the team had ever played in a divisional tournament, and the sting of losing last year’s district challenge game after finishing the regular season in first place was added incentive.

The past two weeks, the Cougars accomplished that goal and then some.

First came a dominating district finish three weeks ago. Then last weekend, Columbus claimed the divisional championship, taking out some of the best teams in the state on the way to the Cougars’ first opportunity to play at state since 2015.


Columbus did not have an easy path to the first place trophy. The Cougars opened the divisional tournament against the Townsend Lady Bulldogs, the first-ranked team in the state for the entire regular season.

As the first seed out of 4B, one would expect an easier first round game for Columbus. However, after going undefeated during the regular season, an injury to a key Bulldog led to an upset loss at Townsend’s district tournament that pushed the best team in the state onto the loser’s side of the bracket.

The first round divisional game Thursday afternoon began slow for both teams, as each struggled to make shots while adjusting to playing in a large venue. By the end of the first quarter, Columbus had a slight 5-4 lead.

In the second quarter, the Cougar offense finally found a rhythm, sparked by a 3-pointer from senior Alexa Riveland. Columbus went on an 11-0 run, with the Cougars’ tough defense holding Townsend scoreless until about 1:30 left in the quarter. The Bulldogs only made one field goal in the second as Columbus took control of the game 20-6 at halftime.

The momentum shifted to begin the second half, and Townsend went on an 8-0 run during the first four minutes of the third quarter to shrink the Cougar lead. Entering the fourth, Columbus was still up, but only by five points, 24-19.

The Cougars’ offensive rhythm returned in the fourth, leading Columbus to pull away from the Bulldogs as the clock ticked down. The Cougars earned a spot in the semifinals with a 37-30 final victory.

Riveland led the Columbus offense with 10 points, four rebounds, four assists, and four steals. She was followed by sophomore Payton West with six points, which Cougar Head Coach Jeromey Burke described as “two timely 3’s that pushed the lead back out when Townsend was making their run in the second half.”

Columbus had three players contribute five points to the team’s total – senior Morgan Kirch, junior Brenna Rouane, and sophomore Trista Teeters.

“Going into that game we knew we would need to limit the success of their two inside girls,” Burke explained. Columbus did just that, holding one of the girls to 10 points on 15 shots and the other to only three points and one rebound. Burke added that “out-rebounding a team as athletic as (Townsend) 32-26” was key.

ing some key Herders and keeping them to low point totals.

“Although the second half wasn’t ‘pretty’ (we only scored one field goal), I told the girls you don’t get style points in the postseason, and if the lead stays at 15+ I really don’t care what it looks like,” Burke noted.


In the divisional championship Columbus had another difficult test, this time against the Forsyth Dogies, another team featured in the top 10 state rankings all season.

The game was tight in the opening minutes. The Cougar offense struggled to fully take control of the momentum, and at the end of the first quarter, Columbus was able to grab a slight lead, 9-7. The two teams continued to battle throughout the second quarter, and going into the break, Forsyth was up 19-18.

The Cougars were able to find the momentum at halftime. To begin the third quarter, the Columbus offense went on a 7-0 run to take the lead, while the Cougar defense held the Dogies scoreless until about 3:00 left in the quarter. Entering the final minutes, Columbus had a 28-23 lead.

During the fourth quarter, the Cougars continued to pull away from Forsyth. At the final buzzer, Columbus became divisional champs with a 42-34 final.

Several Cougars led the offense Saturday night. Kirch and West each contributed 10, and Rouane was right behind with nine. Junior Liz Lorash scored seven points. Leading in rebounds was Kirch with seven, followed by Wyllie, Rouane, and Riveland with five each.

While she only scored one point, Riveland still gave Cougar fans quite a show, as she, at 5-foot-2-inches, successfully guarded Forsyth’s 6-foot-5-inch Lindsey Hein all night long.

Burke mentioned that although Hein presented a height challenge to Columbus, “we had faced a few different teams this year with a size advantage,


In the semifinal game, the Cougars played the Big Timber Lady Herders, a team Columbus beat by six points each time they faced-off during the regular season.

The Cougars came out ready to play. The offense was clicking from opening tipoff, and by the end of the first quarter, Columbus had a 16-6 advantage over Big Timber.

During the second quarter, the Cougars continued to roll offensively, while the very tough Columbus defense held Big Timber to only two free throws. By the time halftime rolled around, the Cougars had a commanding 30-8 lead. Five-foot-11-inch sophomore Brooklyn Wyllie had a big first half, scoring 10 of the team’s 30 first half points from inside the paint.

The Columbus offense lost some momentum coming out of the break – Wyllie scored all three of the team’s third quarter points. The Herders took some advantage of the lull in Cougar scoring, but Big Timber was only able to close the gap slightly – Columbus was up 33-16 entering the final minutes.

In the fourth quarter, the Cougars survived on only free throws – seven, to be exact – but it turned out to be enough, as an offensive rhythm continued to elude Big Timber. Columbus won the game 40-21, advancing to the divisional title game and earning a guaranteed place at the state tournament.

Wyllie had what Burke described as “an outstanding game” as she led the way for the Cougars with 15 points against the Herders, going 6-for-6 from the field. West scored seven, and Kirch added six points and led the team with seven rebounds.

Burke explained that in addition to the pair of regular season games between Columbus and Big Timber, the two teams faced each other several times during the summer as well, so they were very familiar opponents who always had close, hard-fought games.

The difference last weekend was the Cougars jumping out early and contain-so I knew the girls would be fairly comfortable with it.”

He also explained how the Cougars knew rebounding would be important, saying, “Forsyth had a lot of success rebounding the ball all tournament with their size and athleticism, so that was something the girls really made an intentional effort to combat (we out-rebounded them 32-29).”

Burke highlighted the play of Kirch, who went 7-for-8 from the free throw line, and Lorash, who shot 100 percent and who Burke felt “changed the game for us in the second half.”


The Class B Girls State Basketball Tournament will be held Thursday through Saturday in Belgrade at the Belgrade Special Events Center. The last time Columbus made it to state was 2015, and the Lady Cougars finished fourth that year.

To open this year’s tournament, Columbus will face the Fairfield Lady Eagles on Thursday at 3:30 p.m. Fairfield is the third seed from the north and the only team at state that was not ranked in the top 10 statewide going into the divisional round.

“Everyone knows the success Fairfield has had in the past, and they are going to be extremely well-coached, but again we’re fortunate to have played them over the summer in Fairfield and our girls know if they play well they can compete,” Burke explained.

A win against Fairfield would send the Cougars to a semifinal game against the winner of the Wolf Point (No. 1) vs. Missoula-Loyola (No. 9) game. If Columbus were to lose on Thursday, the Cougars would face the loser of the Wolf Point-Loyola matchup on Friday.

“I think our girls obviously found some confidence in themselves and each other over the last couple weeks, and we know we haven’t even played our best game yet,” Burke noted. “We’ll just keep taking it one game at a time and leave it all on the court.”