BOZEMAN -- The final buzzer sounded, and just like that the weight was gone from the shoulders of the Arlee Warriors.
They cried. They embraced. They wandered the floor at Montana State's Brick Breeden Fieldhouse in a daze.
And the Warriors, finally, got to say it: State champs.
"Aw, next to birth this is the greatest thing," senior forward Tyler Tanner said, beaming amid the red-clad Arlee crowd filling the court after the Warriors' dramatic 71-67 win over relentless Manhattan Christian on Saturday night for the Class C boys championship. "Man, we did it together. That was one of the hardest fought games we've had, and we did it."
In winning the first boys' crown in school history, the Warriors (27-1) rallied from an eight-point first-quarter deficit and only gave themselves breathing room until the final 2½ minutes. Even then, it wasn't until James Ramirez of Manhattan Christian (23-4) missed the front end of a one-and-one free-throw situation with 10 seconds to play that Arlee and its boisterous supporters could begin celebrating.
"Man, to our reservation it's so big," said Arlee coach Zanen Pitts, his eyes red and having to gather himself to speak between hugs. "I'm so tired of seeing all the negative stuff around. I want more kids getting balls in their hands, more kids on the blacktop and doing this. These are moments these kids are going to have the rest of their lives.
"We rode wave of making things better for everyone else. This was not for the boys. This was for everyone on the rez and in Indian country."
It didn't come easy.
The teams traded the lead five times in the third quarter and it was 52-52 with 5:27 to play in the game against a Manhattan Christian team the Warriors had routed by 16 points for the Western C divisional crown.
"That's what we talked about when we went into the locker room," Pittts said of his halftime speech. "It was a state title game and everyone was trying to do too much. Everyone was settling for the 3-ball and small ball. We were not relying on each other, not playing like brothers. We're not looking to razzle dazzle. That's not who we are. The biggest thing was believing in each other."
It worked. Eventually, star guard Phillip Malatare scored to give Arlee a 54-52 lead and then Will Mesteth stole the ball in the backcourt and scored for a four-point margin. The Warriors' pressure led to a turnover and Tanner answered with a basket for a 58-52 lead.
Manhattan Christian would get no closer than four after that, and gradually the Warrior faithful began to sense the inevitable
Arlee's three-headed monster of Tanner, Malatare and Mesteth scored 24, 20 and 17 points, and Tanner added 14 rebounds. Caleb Bellach led Manhattan Christian with 22 points and Ramirez had 18.
"We finally did it for them," Tanner said of the community. "This is the first one's Arlee's got. I think it touched everybody."
Arlee wasn't the only inspiring story of the night.
CJ Nelson, barely a month removed from his return from a broken neck suffered in a football playoff game against Ennis, scored 28 points and made the game-winning free throws with 17.5 seconds remaining to lift Scobey (23-3) over Hays-Lodgepole 74-72 for third place.
"I just felt we needed to finish the game and I felt confident in my free throws," said Nelson, who scored Scobey's final eight points.
Nelson's eyes were red from tears after the game, as were several of his teammates'. He was cleared to return to the team in January and started playing just before districts last month.
"It was hard to sit there and watch -- very hard for me," said Nelson, his voice cracking. "We've got a bunch of seniors and they're all excellent players and good friends. It's pretty awesome."
Scobey trailed 43-32 at halftime and lamented uncharacteristically porous defense. The Spartans 923-3) outscored Hays-Lodgepole 25-13 in the third quarter and gradually pulled ahead late.
"It's just a special group of kids," 15th-year Scobey coach Jason Wolfe said. "I've had a lot of good kids and good teams come through, but these guys are best friends on and off the court and to see this success for them means a lot."
But in the end, the night belonged to Arlee.
"The weight has been lifted off our shoulders," Pitts said. "There' so much pressure on our community to get this, and guess what. To all the haters, I've got two words for you: State champs. And to all who supported us, I've got two words for you: thank you."