BOZEMAN - From their dominant start to their emotional finish, the top-ranked Columbia Falls Wildcats were too much for Dillon Saturday in a 55-43 win over the Beavers in the State A basketball championship.
Senior Nick Emerson torched the Beavers for 26 points as the Wildcats sprinted to a 32-12 lead with 1:40 left in the first half at Breeden Field House. Junior center Austin Barth had nine points from there to help Columbia Falls win its fourth state hoops crown, all since 2003.
Wildcats' coach Cary Finberg added a flourish to the finish, calling time out with 13.8 seconds left after Dillon's attempts to rally finally fizzled. He subbed in his bench, including Kaleb Johnson, the senior forward who went down with a torn knee ligament in the first round-win over Belgrade.
"I talked to the Dillon coaches and asked them if they were ahead at the time if they'd do the same thing," said Finberg. "They agreed to it, and again, it was very emotional. I just love the kid."
The 6-foot-5 Emerson finished with 26 points and five rebounds and blocked two shots, playing the baseline on both offense and defense in Johnson's absence.
He had help. Senior Chris King collected nine rebounds and reserve junior Anthony Correa added seven big points.
"Chris, he's a great athlete," said Emerson. "Same with Anthony - he can come off the bench and do everything for us. Next year, in my opinion, he's going to be one of the best players in the state."
The Wildcats won the battle of 1-3-1 zone defenses.
Emerson scored off a Barth feed for the game's first points, and then scored nine straight Wildcat points as the lead grew to 17-6 late in the first quarter.
In the second he scored down low twice more to spark an 11-0 run; Devyn Rocker dished to Anthony Correa to cap the surge and the lead was 32-12.
"We felt they had some holes in there the first half and we took advantage of that," said Emerson. "The second half we were able to make free throws and down the stretch make the plays.
"I started out pretty good in the first half, and everybody stepped up in the second half and got it done."
Dillon switched to a 2-3 zone in the second half to get some help on Emerson, and fought back. A steal by J.T. Linder led to a Chevy Reed 3-pointer, cutting the gap to 38-28 late in the third quarter.
Wes Knox blocked a shot by Emerson to start the fourth quarter, ahead of a Linder 3-pointer. That left the Beavers down 39-31, and they got the ball back on an Emerson turnover.
But Ben Folsom missed a three and Wes Knox missed a mid-range jumper, and the Wildcats answered with a Parker Johnson free throw and coast-to-coast layup from Correa.
That made it 42-31 with 5:30 left, and four straight points from the 6-6 Barth - "Nick already had all his points, so I wanted to get some," he joked - made it 46-33 with 3:45 remaining.
Barth had 11 points and six boards for the 21-1 Wildcats. Knox led Dillon, which ended up 20-3, with 10 points. The Beavers shot just 38 percent and were beaten 32-19 on the boards, but hung in.
"It just seemed like there were some crucial opportunities in the fourth quarter where we needed to hit a bucket and get a stop, and we just couldn't do it," said Dillon coach Terry Thomas, who lost for the first time in three State A basketball championships. "But I was proud of the way they climbed back in.
"The game got pretty short on us, but we felt like by the end of the game we were just as aggressive and just as good as they were."
"I thought we had some lapses there, but they didn't last," said Finberg. "We knew Dillon was going to make a charge at us, but every time it chipped down to 8, 10 points we seemed to make a play back.
"I thought the last 10 quarters we played at this tournament we were pretty dominant. The kids played perfect basketball. What more can I say?"
Dillon closed to 50-43 with 1:19 left when Linder hit two free throws after getting fouled on a 3-pointer. Parker Johnson and Emerson sandwiched free throws each around a fast-break layup from Rocker to seal it.
Finberg was among the more emotional Wildcats, but there were plenty of tears to go around. Columbia Falls won state titles in 2003 and 2005-06, the last one coming on this floor, and was runner-up (to Dillon) in 2009 and third at state last March.
That Breeden Field House is were former Dillon coach Craig Finberg - Cary's brother who passed away from cancer in 2009 - starred for Montana State was lost on no one.
"It's just great to get it done here," said Emerson.
"We won it here in 2006, and this place has treated us well, it's treated the Finbergs well," said Cary. "It's great to get a win here; obviously MSU has a place in our hearts. We kind of finished it off with again, a very emotional win."
Dillon 8 8 12 15 - 43
C. Falls 18 14 7 16 - 55
DILLON - Austin Williams 2-5 0-0 6, Chevy Reed 1-5 2-2 5, Wes Knox 4-10 1-2 10, J.T. Linder 2-8 4-5 9, Monte Folsom 4-7 0-2 8, Ben Folsom 2-4 0-0 5, Tyson Reese 0-1 0-0 0, Cache King 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 15-40 7-11 43.
COLUMBIA FALLS - Devyn Rocker 1-3 0-0 2, Nick Emerson 10-14 6-7 26, Chris King 1-4 1-1 3, Parker Johnson 1-4 4-9 6, Austin Barth 4-6 3-6 11, Anthony Correa 3-6 0-0 7, Cale Vukonich 0-0 0-0 0, Kaleb Johnson 0-0 0-0 0, Jacob Johnson 0-0 0-0 0, Jacob Colderwood 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-37 14-23 55.
3-point goals - Dillon 6-18 (Williams 2-4, Reed 1-3, B. Folsom 1-3, Knox 1-1, Linder 1-6, Reese 0-1), C.Falls 107 (Correa 1-2, Rocker 0-2, P. Johnson 0-2, Barth 0-1). Rebounds - Dillon 19 (M. Folsom 8), C.Falls 32 (King 9). Fouls - Dillon 19, CF 12. Steals - Dillon 4 (M. Folsom 2), C.Falls 4 (4 with 1). Blocks - Dillon 2 (Knox, M. Folsom), C.Falls 2 (Emerson 2). Turnovers - Dillon 7, CF 9.