BUTTE — Arlee High School guard Will Mesteth eloquently explained the euphoria of capturing the Class C MHSA basketball title for the second consecutive season with a 66-58 victory over the Manhattan Christian Eagles in front of a jam-packed Butte Central crowd Saturday night at the Butte Civic Center.
An elated Warriors star guard Phillip Malatare threw the ball up in the air near the opposing team’s 3-point line when the clock expired at zero.
Arlee capped its unblemished perfect season with their second consecutive win over Manhattan Christian this season and their third consecutive victory over the Eagles counting last season’s 71-67 victory over the Eagles to cap the 2016-2017 season.
Malatare, one of the Warriors’ senior leaders on the floor, said he felt confident in his team’s ability to win.
“I knew we weren’t going to lose and I knew my boys weren’t going to lose from the start,” the senior said of his team. “We just have too much heart.”
Though Malatare expressed confidence in his team’s ability to win the MHSA Class C state title, he knew that executing the task of bringing home hardware would be difficult.
“The pressure is off,” a relaxed Malatare said in a post-game interview. “We always feel lots of pressure to win for our community and that is what it was about. Our community was still going to be there for us whether we won or not. I didn’t want to lose for the community and winning the championship game finally took the pressure off.”
Mesteth, the other senior starter on the team, said he felt the feeling of he and his Warriors team capturing their second consecutive title was “much sweeter” than when his team overhauled Manhattan Christian 71-67 to capture the school’s first-ever title to cap the 2016-2017 season.
“Winning this championship hits harder in the heart and felt better than it did winning the first title,” Mesteth explained. “It was more amazing winning the second title. Not many kids get to win back-to-back titles and in order to win back-to-back titles, it’s just amazing.”
The route to qualifying for another rematch with Manhattan Christian wasn’t easy for the Warriors.
In the first round of the winner’s bracket, Arlee faced a stout No. 2 seeded Belt team out of the east with a winning tradition.
The Huskies, a team traditionally at state every year, are familiar with the bright lights of the state tournament. The recent postseason record between Belt and Arlee going into the game was tied at one apiece.
According to Warriors’ head coach Zanen Pitts, the matchup with the Huskies was “just perfect” and the Friday afternoon game gave his team an opportunity to “even the score.” The Warriors were able to even out the 1-1 postseason head-to-head playoff series the two teams shared in style.
The first round against the Huskies was difficult in the first half as Belt was able to keep up with the high-powered Warriors’ offense at the conclusion of the first half.
The sharp-shooting Huskies shot 3-of-7 from the 3-point line at the conclusion of the first half and this allowed them to keep pace with a much faster, more athletic opponent they faced.
Arlee took a 27-24 lead into halftime as Belt’s top scorers Keagan Stroop and Trey Heitzman generated 22 of what would be the Huskies’ total of 37 points in the loss.
Belt, a team that was visibly tired and sped up throughout the second half, became a victim of attrition when Arlee was able to successfully adjust and shift its collective momentum en route to a 22-7 run at the conclusion of the third quarter.
After attrition kicked in on the tired and worn out Huskies, the Warriors got the luxury to do something they’ve been able to do all season: get their younger players on the bench playing time in the fourth quarter after their comfortable 58-37 victory Thursday afternoon.
Mesteth (15), Malatare (10) and Whitesell (12) collectively equaled the total number of points the entire Belt team manufactured through the whole game.
Lane Johnson finished with eight points and Isaac Fisher collected six rebounds off the glass.
The Warriors also made significant adjustments against the Huskies in the second half, and they shot the three-ball efficiently in the second half. During the first half, the Warriors were uncharacteristically 1-pf-10 from beyond-the-arc and were 6-of-12 in the second half, a significant difference in the outcome of the second half.
One glaring statistic the Warriors had as they prepared to face an undefeated Scobey team was their turnovers.
The Warriors committed a total of 11 turnovers against Belt and this would eventually plague them during their semifinal match.
Arlee 76, Scobey 71
As the Warriors prepared for their game against previously unbeaten Scobey, they knew in order to overhaul them they would have to limit the team’s turnovers.
For the majority of the game, the Warriors continued to commit turnovers and also found key players in foul trouble, two issues that would plague Arlee from being able to run some of the elite teams in Montana off the court.
The turnover ratio between the two teams was nearly even though as the Warriors only committed one more turnover than the Spartans and the two teams committed a total of 37 turnovers throughout the entire contest in this chess match.
The Spartans were propelled by CJ Nelson, Riley Linder, and Jeremy Handy, who accounted for 48 of the team’s 71 points.
The Warriors were more balanced in their distribution of the basketball and that made a significant difference as they struggled to stop the Spartans’ three top players as they trailed 39-33 at halftime.
Arlee, like they did in the previous game, responded in the third quarter and outscored the Spartans 22-7 to reprieve the momentum they struggled to get from the upstart Spartans’ squad.
On offense, the Warriors featured a much more balanced attack against the Spartans with four of their players matching the total offensive production of Scobey’s team.
Mesteth finished with 18 points, Malatare had 28 points, Whitesell had 14 points and Lane Johnson accounted for 11 points.
In the second half, the Warriors adjusted their amount of 3-point attempts and they went 2-of-3 from the three-point line in the second half as opposed to 1-of-10 in the first half.
Perhaps the most glaring statistic in the game was the Warriors outrebounded the Spartans 32-22 from the entire game with Malatare grabbing 10 defensive rebounds.
The only reason Scobey was able to stay with the Warriors was the amount of fouls Arlee accumulated. Isaac Fisher, Malatare had accumulated four fouls with Mesteth, Lane Johnson and Darshawn Bolin all totaling three fouls.
After the game with the Spartans, Mesteth, whose team was headed to play Manhattan Christian in the MHSA Class C state championship game, said he, the team and the coaching staff didn’t focus on what wrong after the close call with a spirited Spartans team. They just focused on Manhattan Christian, a team that they defeated 69-60 in the MHSA Class C Divisional at Hamilton.
“We didn’t talk much about the Scobey game and we just focused on our game with Manhattan Christian,” Mesteth said.
Arlee 66, Manhattan Christian 58
The Arlee High School basketball team went into the MHSA Class C championship riding a proverbial wave of momentum and carrying an abundance of confidence the Eagles’ team would be unable to derail.
Playing with heavy hearts and focused on more than basketball, Arlee was determined to deliver an MHSA state title to their fans, their community, and their reservation.
Playing this game was more than just basketball to Pitts, his coaching staff, and his team. Their 66-58 victory allowed them to continue the platform to sending a message of hope to those that suffer in silence.
The Warriors were able to do just that as they struggled against a sharp-shooting Manhattan Christian team they defeated 69-60 just a week ago in the Divisional semifinal round at Hamilton.
Arlee knew overhauling one of the most consistent teams in the last two years in the finals, yet again, wouldn’t be easy.
“We talked a lot about how Manhattan Christian had ranges similar to NBA shooters and the whole team shot well, no doubt about that,” Warriors guard Lane Schall said. “We were able to get our hands up. You have to get a hand up and test their shot early.”
The Eagles were as efficient for beyond three as Schall and the rest of his team were aware of. MC made a total of seven 3-point shots in the game and it accounted for 21 of their 58 points they manufactured in the game.
Caleb Bellach and Matthew Amunrud accounted for 40 of the team’s 56 points with no other contributors ending up in double-digits in points.
Another major difference in the game was Arlee’s nearly flawlessly executed free throw shooting. The Warriors made 19-of-21 free throw attempts. The Eagles lost a prospective six points on free throw attempts, which ended up being one of the major differences in this closely contested battle.
The Warriors took a significant amount of momentum as they prepared to head into the third quarter with a 26-19 advantage. The Eagles would fight back and gain a 31-29 advantage but that was the last time they would have the lead in the game.
Lane Johnson and Mesteth had fought third-quarter foul trouble with Mesteth having three fouls and Johnson finished with four in the game.
In a game where there was a total of three lead changes, the Warriors didn’t buckle under the pressure of the Eagles’ attack and made their free throws. Mesteth sealed the victory with two clutch free throws with 30 seconds left to go in the game.
“I knew we were going to win when we had that tingly feeling and it was like the hard work and weight had been lifted off our shoulders,” Schall said. “We knew we could breathe for a second. It’s unreal and I want to be with my team and cherish this moment.”