The Arlee Warriors boys basketball team prides themselves on their basketball IQ and headed into the Montana Class-C State Tournament, they are preparing for the tourney with diligence because the Warriors said they know anything can happen.
According to Warrior standout Phillip Maltare, you can’t take anything for granted in a tournament format.
“Big upsets come in college basketball and high school basketball,” Maltare said.
As requested by Coach Zanen Pitts, Malatare and his teammates study the game. Pitts checks on them via text to give them pop quizzes on certain games at the professional and collegiate level he wants his team to study.
“When I watch basketball, I find stuff to take from players that I watch and I watch all kinds of basketball,” Malatare said. “If I see something that I like I throw it into my game and that isn’t just offensive but defensively.”
Malatare, who was one of the few members of the Warriors that played in last year’s championship game against Box Elder, said he felt playing at state was a “different experience.”
“It is a different atmosphere, we have to really rebound, and we know we have to box out in order to do well at state,” Maltare said. “We have to play with a defensive tempo up and down and always be on ball pressure.”
Currently, Malatare is watching Kyrie Irving and Isiah Thomas.
“I like how Irving handles the ball and him and Thomas are so little in the NBA but still one of the top-scorers in the league,” Malatare explains. “They both play with a lot of heart and I watch how they play,”
The Warriors, who are undersized compared to their competition, will have to play what their coach Zanen Pitts refers to as “small ball.” Maltare and his Warrior teammates admit they aren’t bothered by that.
“We have to find a way to guard them and our No. 1 through five players on our team can play any position,” Maltare said. “They also have to figure out how to guard us, score, and get stops. We can slow the ball down and they have to come out and sit there. We just have to do what we do.”
Alex Moran said he isn’t sure if the team has even reached its capabilities or “peaked” as they head into March Madness.
“I don’t know if we’ve started to click but we’ve been working harder and harder and our shots are starting to fall,” Moran said. “If those shots aren’t falling then the momentum doesn’t switch. That is why our hometown crowd is such a big deal. The bigger the crowds we play in front of, we all play as hard we can now.”
Moran said he has learned the atmosphere in the tournament is “different.”
“It’s a whole different season than the regular season, district is a whole different atmosphere,” Moran said. “Tyler, Phillip and I have played basketball together since we were little and we have never played in anything this big. This is something that we have dreamed about playing. If we work hard, and I think this is the best chance we will have, personally I think we will win it.”
Even though Moran expressed confidence in his team’s ability he said he is aware “anything can happen.”
“We’ve been hearing a lot about the south and even though the North has traditionally won most of the championships, you can’t count out the South,” Moran said. “We have never played against these kids and we have no idea who we are matching up against. This could be the best team that we played all year and I personally think we are in a good position to win a state championship.”
Greg Whitesell said he feels the difference between the seasons.
“The intensity is way higher than it was at the beginning of the season,” Whitesell said. “We are now three games away from achieving our dreams and when you are that close. the intensity is going to be naturally higher because now we know we can do it.”
Whitesell and the rest of the team concur that the two big games of their season can be pinpointed to their 82-59 regular-season victory at Plains and the 85-69 victory over Manhattan Christian to capture the Divisional Crown.
“I feel that during the tournament we improved drastically and together we have learned a lot about the game of basketball,” Whitesell said. “I think I would say we always have had a chip on our shoulder. We are a smaller team and even if we don’t have the height, I think we have a good chance of winning. We know we just have to execute.”
Warrior Will Mestes said he felt his team is “hungry” to capture the state championship title.
“We are hungry for that state championship and we are just trying to make history,” Mestes said. “I think no team has ever won a state championship on the rez since the 70s or 80s. We love the support our town and our fans give us from every game.”
At the beginning of the season, Mestes and his Warriors got to experience a tournament atmosphere at the the Native American Classic in Havre.
“Oh yeah, it was a tournament atmosphere,” Mestes recalls. “There were two games that we played and two teams especially in the state rematch against Box Elder.”
Last year, Mestes wasn’t eligible to play and this year he said it has given him a whole new perspective on the game.
“From being ineligible last year to it’s almost like I am thankful for this year,” Mestes said. “To play with two all-state players like Phillip and Ty and their style of basketball, it has been a heck of season.”