Maroons win state title

Butte Central coaches Kate English, left, and Quinn Peoples surround Kloie Thatcher after the sophomore banked in a long 3-pointer to beat the buzzer at the end of the third quarter Saturday night at the Belgrade Special Events Center. (Bill Foley photo)

By Bruce Sayler

BELGRADE — History rolled in on waves for the Butte Central basketball program Saturday night while the Maroons were notching their fourth state title in Class A girls’ hoops — a 55-48 victory over a worthy, formidable Columbia Falls opponent at the Special Events Center.

With the win in the state Class A championship game, the BC girls finished an undefeated season, going a perfect 24-0 for 2015-16. It was also Butte Central’s fourth state championship game appearance in this last half-decade with a crown in 2011 and runner-up finishes in 2012 and 2015.

The unbeaten campaign was the third for Meg Murphy as a head coach in Maroon sports as she also guided the BC girls’ softball team to state titles in 1999 and 2000 during a win streak of 56 games.

Murphy coached the girls’ hoops squad to its 2011 crown. She, herself, was a state champion in the shot put, and was on both a Butte Central state champion girls’ basketball team and girls’ track team.

Murphy insisted, though, that this latest accomplishment was all about the girls and especially the role 5-foot-10 senior Sierra Pica played. The post player collected 19 points, 11 rebounds, 5 shot blocks and an assist while leading the win. She did it while playing most of the game with a suspected broken nose.

“Just before halftime, she got hit down there,” the coach said, pointing to a key at one end of the court. “And, she told me at halftime, she was going to play — no matter what.”

Play, she did.

She stayed, too, choosing to celebrate with her teammates after the game rather than immediately seeking medical attention and confirmation of the break. The injury occurred during some hard, physical championship play beneath the basket in a tussle for the ball.

“I’m on such a high right now, I don’t feel anything,” she said with a large smile while soaking in the moment — the pain numbed by the euphoria of the win. “This is so exciting. This is our dreams come true.”

Pica’s older sister, Alicia, was a reserve on the 2010 team and played as a starter in the 2011 game. This trip to state is Sierra Pica’s third with the Maroons, Murphy noted.

“She’s a senior and she was going to go out in a blaze of glory,” Murphy said. “We have just two seniors and what a difference she and Kate Ossello made. Columbia Falls is so tall, it was difficult to play Ossello in this game, but she and Pica are so important to this team.”

The Murphy connections run deep in this championship, too. Meg’s daughter, Lexie, was on the 2011 state championship team and now assists her mom. Starting 6-0 sophomore post Kailee Murphy is Meg’s daughter and Lexie’s younger sister. The girls’ dad, Marc, played on the 1984 BC boys’ basketball state champs and their uncles, Ryan and Zack Murphy, were members of the 1993 Maroon boys’ Class A basketball titlists.

Mollie Peoples, a 5-8 junior who scored 12 points in Saturday’s championship win, is the younger sister of Quinn Peoples, a BC assistant coach, who starred on the 2011 title squad. Their older sister, Mairissa, worked the 2011 championship game as a color analyst for KOPR Radio with the late Pat Kearney, the faithful Maroons’ play-by-play caller who passed away in October of 2014. Mairissa Peoples was also a star for BC hoops until contracting cancer, which she succumbed to at age 23 almost two years ago to the day of this championship — March 13, 2014. The 2011 crown was won on this same Belgrade Special Events Center floor.

Coach Murphy was teary eyed when she talked about the latest triumph and compared to others she has known, personally.  “I love to see kids experience a state championship,” she enthused. “It’s the greatest thing in the world. If you accomplish it, nobody can take it away from you.  “We talked about this after last year (which ended in a 58-46 loss to Hamilton in the state final) and set four goals for this season,” Murphy said. “We wanted to win our conference, qualify for the state tournament, then win our divisional tournament and then win the state championship. There’s no way I ever thought we’d go undefeated.”

Actually, the girls might not have thought it either, until it happened.

“Not until maybe the last minute of this game, the final buzzer, really,” said smiling Emily St. John, the heady junior point guard, who scored 10 points and dished out four assists. “(Columbia Falls) is a very good, very athletic team.”

It’s one that wouldn’t go away, either. The well-coached Wildkats, who finished with a shiny 21-3 mark with two of the losses to Butte Central, never led after midway through the first quarter and did tie the Maroons at 38-all in the third frame. However, they stayed within five points or fewer all the way through the second half until the final seven-point difference.

St. John broke the 38-all tie with a 3-point basket at the 1 minute, 24-second mark of the third quarter, and Peoples netted two free throws 38 seconds later for a five-point gap. Kiara Burlage buried a 3-pointer as Columbia Falls whittled the difference to 43-41 going into the last frame. Peoples spun into the key packed tight with Wildkat defense to fling in a runner for the first points of the last quarter.

Columbia Falls failed to convert either of two free throws, but Pica got one for the Maroons. BC missed a couple of foul shots a possession later, then the Wildkats scored four straight points on baskets by Sydney Hovde and Allyson Gimbel. The Butte Central lead was 46-45 with 4:01 left.

Peoples coaxed in another runner from the side, and then Pica followed up her own missed shot with a shot that slid through the strings for a 50-45 Maroon lead. Only two minutes remained.

Burlage downed one of two charity tosses, then drove the lane for a basket 20 seconds later after BC missed on a chance.

So, 1:31 showed on the clock with BC ahead 50-48. St. John knifed into the key on a drive for a Butte Central basket and then Burlage was unable to net either of two foul shots on the other end.

Less than a minute was left when the Maroons regained the ball. St. John was fouled by Ellie Johnson and caged both awarded freebies. The Maroon lead was 54-48 and victory seemed assured with 35 ticks left on the clock.

Sharpshooter Peyton Kehr was just off on a 3-point attempt for Columbia Falls and Kloie Thatcher grabbed the rebound for BC. She got the ball to Peoples, who drew a foul from Johnson with 17 seconds to go. Peoples made the first free throw, but missed the second. It didn’t matter. Murphy snared the rebound and the Maroons held the ball as the remaining time melted off the clock.

The Butte Central Maroons were state Class A champions.

“These kids — I call them flaky — but they don’t let anything get to them,” coach Murphy said. “They knew they would have to board well and shoot the ball well if they were going to win. This was hard. But, they kept hitting and stayed unbeaten, hard to do when everybody is targeting you. I never dreamed we’d go undefeated.”

Butte Central outscored Columbia Falls 12-7 in the last quarter as the Wildkats missed five of six free throws in the frame.

The shot of the night looked like it might have been at the halftime buzzer. Thatcher took an inbound pass from St. John with less than a second on the clock and executed her best Big Hole River catch-and-release cast from about 33 feet, and at an angle. It hit the backboard as the buzzer sounded, caught the inside of the rim front and rattled through for a 3-pointer that gave the Maroons 27-21 cushion. It looked safe for the moment, until the Wildkats clawed back with good defense and the play of Burlage in the second half.  Thatcher’s first 3-pointer notched the last points of the first quarter and made for a 14-10 BC advantage.

She finished the game with nine points — all on her three treys. Murphy scored four points, and Ossello, Taylor Wahl and Megan Michelotti all played important moments.

Burlage led Columbia Falls with 17 points. Kehr had 10. Only five Wildkat players tallied points as Gimbel totaled eight, Cydney Finberg had seven and Hovde six. Johnson dealt eight assists. Sydney Gilley and Miranda Livingston also played. Successful veteran coach Cary Finberg heads the Wildkat program.

Columbia Falls defeated Butte Central in the semifinals of the state Class A volleyball tournament last fall and went on to win the state tournament and the Maroons finished third. The Wildkats will lose five seniors, but only two starters, off of this basketball squad while BC will graduate Pica and Ossello.

St. John said keeping Columbia Falls from attacking the weak side and from trapping the Maroons on the baseline were important in the second half. Both tactics had paid dividends for the Wildkats before intermission.

“We went to getting the ball inside (to the post players) and not go on the baseline,” she said. “It was important to not turn it over.”  “This feels pretty good,” she savored.

Other members of the Butte Central 2016 state championship team were Olivia Bolton, Bella Sorini, Caleigh Mullaney and Tricia Joyce. Melissa Swanson and Katie English were other assistant coaches.

BUTTE CENTRAL (24-0) — Kloie Thatcher 3-8 0-0 9, Mollie Peoples 4-13 3-4 12, Sierra Pica 9-12 1-3 19, Kailee Murphy 2-7 0-0 4, Emily St. John 3-8 4-7 11, Kate Ossello 0-0 0-0 0, Taylor Wahl 0-0 0-0 0, Megan Michelotti 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 21-50 8-14 55.
COLUMBIA FALLS (21-3) — Cydney Finberg 2-2 2-2 7, Ellie Johnson 0-2 0-0 0, Peyton Kehr 4-11 0-0 10, Kiara Burlage 5-12 6-13 17, Allyson Gimbel 2-8 4-5 8, Sydney Hovde 3-5 0-0 6, Sydney Grilley 0-2 0-0 0, Miranda Livingston 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 16-45 12-20 48.
Butte Central 14 13 16 12 — 55
Columbia Falls 10 11 20 7 — 48
3-point goals — BC 5-17 (Thatcher 3-6, Peoples 1-8, St. John 1-3), CF 4-12 (Finberg 1-1, Johnson 0-1, Kehr 2-6, Burlage 1-2, Gimbel 0-1, Grilley 0-1). Fouled out — none. Total fouls — BC 14, CF 12. Rebounds — BC 33 (Pica 11, Thatcher 6, St. John 6), CF 31 (Burlage 10, Gimbel 8). Blocks — BC 5 (Pica 5), CF 4 (Gimbel 2). Assists — BC 11 (Thatcher 4, St. John 4), CF 16 (Johnson 8). Steals — BC 9 (Peoples 4, St. John 4), CF 2 (Livingston 1, Burlage 1). Turnovers — BC 9, CF 11. 2 comments

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  • Michelle
    March 12, 2016, 11:22 pm

    Congratulations on a super game and a fabulous season!

  • Rob johnson
    March 13, 2016, 12:03 am

    Outstanding!! Congrats!!


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