Cougars win one at 1st state tourney in 4 years

By: 
Mikaela Koski
Thursday, March 14, 2019

SCN photos by Mikaela Koski

Cougar senior Alexa Riveland moves the ball down the court during last weekend's state tournament in Belgrade. See our photo gallery for more images.

The Columbus Lady Cougars wrapped up basketball season last weekend at the state tournament in Belgrade. The team found mixed results, falling just short of any hardware.

FAIRFIELD

To open tournament play, Columbus faced the Fairfield Lady Eagles, a historically strong program, but the only team at this year’s state tourney that was not ranked state-wide going into divisionals.

The Cougars caught a spark early and used the momentum throughout the first quarter to build a lead. Back-to-back 3-pointers from junior Liz Lorash and senior Alexa Riveland as the clock wound down gave Columbus an 18-8 advantage entering the second quarter.

A lull in the Cougar action took place in the second period – Fairfield went on a 6-0 run, with Columbus’s only field goal coming right before the buzzer. Going into the break, the Cougars were still up, but their lead was slightly smaller, 21-14.

Coming out of halftime, Columbus continued to struggle to find the offensive rhythm they had in the first quarter. Junior Brenna Rouane was the only Cougar able to find the basket for points during the third quarter, making two field goals. Fairfield took advantage of Columbus’s struggles, slowly eating up the Cougar lead throughout the period. An Eagle 3-pointer right before the buzzer gave Fairfield its first lead of the game, 27-25.

The final minutes were a battle between the two teams, kick-started by a 3-pointer from sophomore Payton West. Fairfield and Columbus fought back and forth, with neither team gaining more than a four-point advantage and the lead changing five times. The Cougars were bumped into bonus with about 3:30 left in the game, and that ended up making all the difference.

A pair of free throws by Rouane and then by senior Morgan Kirch gave Columbus a 39-38 lead with about three minutes remaining. A big block by sophomore Brooklyn Wyllie under the basket with about a minute left and a missed Fairfield shot saw Rive-land at the free throw line looking to extend the Cougar’s slight lead with a one-and-one free throw opportunity with about 13 seconds left in the game.

Despite missing a free throw in the same situation about 30 seconds earlier, Riveland rose to the challenge, sinking two free throws to crucially extend Columbus’s lead to three-points, 41-38. The Cougars were able to hold on for the final seconds, advancing to the semi-finals with the 41-38 victory.

Rouane led the Columbus offense with 10 points, followed by Kirch with nine; both girls also led in rebounds with six apiece. Riveland and Wyllie each scored seven points. As a team, the Cougars made 9-of-11 free throws in the fourth quarter alone, 12 total from the courtesy stripe.

Columbus Head Coach Jeromey Burke explained how the Cougars had a solid plan to limit the points of Fairfield’s best player, Kenna Pitcher, and the Columbus defense held her to 1-of-13 from the field (she had 42 points during Fairfield’s last divisional tournament game).

The two teams were familiar with each other because they faced off during the last two summers, and Burke noted the Fairfield defense was the first aggressive defense the Cougars had seen in a few weeks, and it caused the Columbus offense some troubles.

Despite a few Cougar missteps, Burke said, “All in all, I was happy to play such a well-coached team, not play our best, but still find a way to get in a win at the state tournament.”

WOLF POINT

Thursday’s win pushed Columbus into a semifinal matchup against the first-ranked team in the state – the Wolf Point Wolves.

The game began close, and at the 4:30-mark the Wolves were only up two, 7-5. Wolf Point caught a spark during the second half of the quarter, putting together a 12-0 run to grab a 19-8 lead by the end of the initial minutes. The tall (three players are 6-00 or taller) and athletic Wolves continued to make baskets as the Cougar shots failed to fall. By halftime, Wolf Point was up 35-14.

The first half’s momentum continued in the second. Columbus struggled to make shots, and the Wolves remained very tough defensively inside the paint, taking away an option for the Cougars. In the end, Columbus lost the game 62-27.

Wolf Point finished the tournament with a 48-35 championship win over Florence to take the state title.

Three Cougars led the offense with six points each – Rouane, Riveland, and sophomore Trista Teeters. Wyllie led the team with seven rebounds.

As a team, Columbus shot only 20.9 percent from the field, while Wolf Point sat at 50 percent from the field, including 57 percent from behind the arc (they made eight 3-pointers).

Burke noted how the Wolf Point team was physically imposing, with three players standing a couple inches taller than the Cougars’ tallest player, Wyllie.

“We had to make a choice,” Burke explained, “and based on how they shot the ball the night before (2-13 from 3), we had to defend their post player (Imani Bighorn) first and hope they shot similar. Unfortunately, they shot an unreal 80 percent in the first half, and while there were some things we could have done better, they were just dialed in that night.”

He continued: “As usual, the effort was there, but you just have to be ready to play at a different level against an eventual state champion, and we didn’t make it happen.”

THREE FORKS

The loss on Friday night bumped the Cougars to the loser-out side of the bracket to face a familiar opponent Saturday morning – the Three Forks Lady Wolves. During the regular season, Columbus won both times the teams played each other.

During the first quarter on Saturday, both teams struggled to find an offensive rhythm. Entering the second, Three Forks was up 5-1. Columbus fought back in the second quarter, tying the game twice. The Wolves were able to pull ahead each time, though, and going into halftime Three Forks was up 16-13.

After the break, the Wolves were able to grab the momentum to extend their lead to 10 points, 32-22, by the end of the third quarter. Rouane (five points) and Kirch (four points) combined to score all of the team’s third quarter points.

Despite the Cougars’ best efforts, and a single-digit, seven-point deficit with about a minute left in the game, it was not to be for Columbus. The Cougars lost the game 43-36. The loss ended Columbus’s season one game short of the state consolation game.

Rouane led Columbus with 14 points, followed by Kirch with eight points. With six rebounds, Wyllie led the team; Rouane had five rebounds and Riveland had four.

Burke mentioned that Three Forks was playing its best basketball of the season, and that paired with the Cougars struggling to make shots did not bode well for Columbus.

“I think for the first time all year the girls were just a little bit tired mentally,” he said. “They’d been dialed-in for four weeks, and their heart was in it, but we’d gotten rid of a lot of little mistakes to get there, and a lot of those showed up Saturday morning.”

WRAPPING THINGS UP

Looking back at the season, Burke described what the Cougars accomplished as “a huge success.”

“The girls came so far in such a short time, and their effort everyday is the reason why,” he explained. Burke also noted how he was glad Kirch, Riveland, and fellow senior Talyn Richard were able to finish their high school careers in such a positive way.

Peeking into the future, Burke said, “The girls definitely learned how much work it takes to make a divisional or state tournament, and I’m hoping this lights a fire under our younger girls and returners to want to go after it again.”

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