PABLO — The Arlee Warriors conspicuously ran out to a drumbeat and a near-capacity Salish Kootenai College gym Friday night. That was by design.
"I want everyone to know the champs are here," Arlee's coach Zanen Pitts said in the locker room before the game.
There was no doubt about it — the reigning Class C kings were back. They left to cheers after a 69-61 win against Rocky Boy.
Senior guard Phillip Malatare dazzled while scoring a game-high 36 points, Greg Whitesell canned three 3-pointers to follow with 17 points, and 6-foot-8 Isaac Fisher provided six points, four of them perhaps bigger than any others.
With the Warriors and Northern Stars tied at 55-apiece and three minutes to play, Fisher — who was challenged pregame by Pitts to play big — responded. The slender giant provided a put-back dunk with his right hand that got the 2,000-plus fans on their feet.
"I was excited after that. Got hyped up," Fisher said. "My energy went up, my confidence went up — I just felt really good."
Fisher wasn't done. On Rocky's next possession, the Arlee junior blocked a shot that ultimately went out of bounds on the Stars. He had to adjust his glasses after the play and the crowd loved it.
"First dunk in a high school game against another 6-7 kid, who is, in my opinion one of the best kids on the HI-Line. (That was) Big; it came at a time when we needed a spark," Pitts said. "He came out of his shell and had the biggest play of his career."
Fisher's play was followed by vintage Malatare.
While the home crowd was still in a frenzy, the do-everything, all-state senior picked Rocky Boy's pocket near half court and was off to the races, reminiscent of the evening as a whole. He finished with uncanny body control and in a matter of a minute, Arlee had built a 61-55 lead.
The Stars answered with a four-point run in the next 30 seconds, though, with a Ben Iron Eyes bucket followed by a coast-to-coast layup from Kendall Windy Boy. Windy Boy's layup was particularly impressive, as the 6-foot-7 forward ran the length of the court after recovering a rebound on the defensive end.
"It's pretty fun — I only get to do that every once in a while," said Windy Boy, who finished with 11 points.
Iron Eyes added a team-high 21, but was held to just two points in the fourth quarter as Arlee's pressure-defense took hold. Rocky Boy's Kordell Small picked it up in Iron Eyes' stead, scoring seven of his 19 in the final frame.
But Malatare was simply cold-blooded as he closed out the game. He hit on 7 of 8 free throws in the waning minutes, and Arlee was 16 for 20 from the line as a team for the game.
Malatare, whose ability to get to the rim is impressive not just for Class C but at any level, made 15 freebies himself.
"He's got the best first step out of anyone in the state of Montana; any class, I don't care who you are," coach Pitts said of his star.
And for Pitts, Malatare isn't the only one who can shine bright.
The Warriors three-headed monster of Malatare, Whitesell and Will Mesteth was on full display midway through the third quarter when Arlee pulled ahead by 10, 43-33. Malatare brought the ball up the court, dished to Whitesell who found Mesteth behind the arc.
Mesteth rewarded the ball movement with a 3-point splash.
The Northern Stars, like they did all night, came back to tie the game at 45. Iron Eyes had eight himself in the 12-2 run.
The champs were just too tough, though. It was plain to see.