The Arlee Warriors made history in Bozeman Saturday evening as they defeated Manhattan Christian 71-67 to earn the school’s first-ever boys’ state basketball title.
Montana State University’s Worthington Arena at the Brick Breeden Field House was full to capacity for the Class C championship game, which featured a rematch of the Western C Divisional title game.
After trailing the entire first half, the Warriors took the lead in the third quarter and held off a pesky Eagles team to earn the state title.
Arlee senior guard Alex Moran admits he lost his ability to be articulate when he attempted to describe the pandemonium he and his Warrior teammates experienced after capturing the first-ever Class C basketball title in school history.
“I don’t know, (winning the title) is just unexplainable and it’s crazy,” Moran, who played his final game as a Warrior Saturday night, said. “That was our goal at the beginning of the season and it’s every kid’s goal. Winning the title was a fun experience.”
Moran admitted he couldn’t elaborate.
“Like I said, the feeling of winning is unexplainable,” Moran said.
Fortunately for Moran, an elated Coach Zanen Pitts could fill in the blanks as he fearlessly guided his team to achieve what has never been done in the history of Warriors’ basketball.
Pitts admits derailing Manhattan Christian not once, but twice was “daunting.”
“I know for a fact it’s the hardest game that I have ever coached,” Pitts said. “I really had to dig down in a few different areas mentally just to focus because we played nearly flawlessly in the Divisional.”
Pitts admits the championship game against Manhattan Christian wasn’t as flawless. His Warriors, probably jet lagged from the two week period between Divisionals and State, weren’t as crisp in the championship game.
“We shot poor from the free throw line, they set us up on the back door, and they continued to run and we went away from our style of basketball,” Pitts said. “I didn’t want to waste a timeout. We had two timeouts and they controlled the tempo. Down the stretch, we finally made adjustments and were able to maintain. Manhattan Christian is a tough team.”
Throughout the tournament, the Warriors knew they were going to have to play what Pitts referred to as “small ball” by lack of choice. Arlee had a definitive height disadvantage averaging 5 foot, 9 inches tall per man versus a taller, longer Eagles team that averaged 6 foot, 2 inches on the court.
On one hand, Pitts admits he thought the task of winning would be “daunting,” and then contradicts himself by admitting his team wouldn’t be denied.
“I am blown away that we were able to do this and it just shows that my boys are capable of doing anything,” Pitts said. “Our average height is only 5-foot, 9 and a half.”
The Eagles opened the game with a blitzkrieg, scoring the first six points of the game and immediately trying to put a shell-shocked Arlee on the ropes.
Manhattan Christian finished the first quarter with a 19-13 lead. The one statistic that kept the Warriors in the game and eventually enabled them to clinch was their flawless execution in not allowing a single turnover at the conclusion of the first half, even though they went into the half trailing 35-32.
“Halftime was huge because we were able to get the guys in the locker room and look them in the eye,” Pitts said. “We were able to tell them that we went away from what got us there. They are controlling the tempo. We had to match them blow for blow and go right at the big guys they were shying away from. We were taking it one-on-one to the cup and that just wasn’t productive.”
Pitts felt like his team needed to simply attack.
“It is a double-edge sword and there were a lot of one-on-one opportunities,” Pitts said. “Our guys were just settling from the three-point line early in the game. What we did to get them in foul trouble was we attacked the rim so quick and both of their bigs got into foul trouble. Down the stretch, that ended up being a big deal. They were in foul trouble and that is when we realized what we were doing worked.”
The Warriors offense, which only committed a total of two turnovers for the entire game, was able to outscore Manhattan Christian 39-32 in the second half en route to securing the championship title.
“We were able to spread the court with two minutes left to go in the third quarter and we took the lead by four,” Pitts said. “We hit a three-pointer and I remember right there (after the third quarter) my boys were able to get their legs under them and (in the fourth quarter) we were able spread the court. We were only up 48-47 and we executed amazingly. We stretched the score to two possession (game) and I told my boys if they come out of that zone, they will be state champs.”
When Arlee collapsed the Eagles’ defense in the fourth quarter, they had it sealed, according to Pitts.
“Our legs were able to get fresh in the fourth quarter and right after the third quarter ended, we had an entire two minutes,” Pitts said. “That quarter break slowed them down and we hit the Eagles with our press. We got them running, pushed into transition and open the game with 2:46 left. It was over. I just watched my team burn the clock. You could hear the crowd screaming ‘foul,’ ‘foul,’ and Manhattan players couldn’t hear them yelling. That is when Arlee’s sixth man and their voices bought us the extra thirty seconds. We became state champs.”
After the Warriors captured the title, Pitts said the feeling was “nuts.”
“There was two things that people thought would never happen,” Pitts said. “We transitioned from a run and gun transition team to being able to spread the court. Winning is winning, no matter how many points you win by or how you do it. I just wanted to win.”
Tyler Tanner led the Warriors with 24 points, Phillip Malatare had 20, Will Mesteth had 17, Alex Moran had six, Lane Johnson had three and Greg Whitesell finished with one.
Pitts admits winning a state championship title still hasn’t hit him yet.
“I don’t know if I don’t think (winning the title has sunk in),” Pitts said. “I came home and the cows tore up the fence. They needed to be fed and I still hadn’t had a chance to sit down after the tournament. I am sure it is going to hit me pretty soon. I haven’t slept but I think I will lay down and think about how me and my boys did it.”
Arlee 81, Hays-Lodgepole 71
Arlee handed Hays-Lodgepole only its second loss of the season. The first lost came at the expense of the Warriors when they defeated them Dec. 9 at the Native American Classic in Havre.
The Warriors defeated Hays-Lodgepole again 81-71.
Will Mesteth led the Warriors with 28 points, Tyler Tanner had 26, Phillip Malatare had 19, Greg Whitesell had five, and Alex Moran finished with three points on the night.
Arlee 93, Plenty Coups 77
The Arlee High School team defeated Plenty Coups in what Zane Pitts called a “physical game.”
“That game was just a rough game and it was physical,” Pitts said. “I didn’t coach that well and we had the feeling that we were off for two weeks. They were very crisp and on-point and we were just a little behind. We got tired in that game.”
Phillip Malatare, once again, proved to be one of the key components in the team’s triumph over the upstart team. Ever the triple-double threat, Malatare finished with 32 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists.