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Ali-oop - Hurley leads Anaconda to new heights in pursuit of championship
Ali-oop - Hurley leads Anaconda to new heights in pursuit of championship

Anaconda's Ali Hurley has accomplished a lot in her basketball career.

In her four years with the Copperheads, they've posted a gaudy 81-9 record and didn't lose a Southwestern A Conference game en route to four divisional titles. She's landed a full-ride scholarship to play for the Montana Lady Griz. She was nominated for the McDonald's High School All-America team. She even has her name inscribed on a wall in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

The only thing missing?

"A state championship," Hurley said.

She'll get the chance to add that elusive piece of hardware to her resume when the State A girls' basketball tournament tips off Thursday at Dale Berry Court in Hamilton.

With Hurley on the team, the Copperheads' program has undergone a major transformation. Prior to her freshman campaign, the last time Anaconda played in a state tournament was 1996. This weekend will be the team's fourth straight appearance, and the pressure for the team to win its first girls' state basketball championship since 1973 is mounting.

Anaconda made an impressive run to the state championship game in 2005 and fell to defending champ Lewistown. The following two seasons saw the team enter the state tourney as the favorite, but the result could best be described as disappointing. The Copperheads lost to Miles City in the semifinals in '06 and were upset by Havre in the opening round last year.

"It's been a sore spot coming up short the last three years," said coach Maury Cook, who's in his fifth year at the helm of the Copperheads. "We set winning a state championship as a goal - not a purpose - and sometimes goals just aren't achieved. But the expectations are high, like with any good team."

Hurley and the Heads, however, have turned those close calls into motivation.

"There are some people who say, 'Anaconda gets to state and chokes,' and we're sick of hearing that," said Hurley, a three-time all-state selection. "As a team we've worked even harder this season. If we can play together as a team, hopefully we can prove those doubters wrong."

Hurley's successes on the court aren't an accident. Since the age of 4, she's been groomed to be a basketball player. By the time she reached high school she was primed and ready to step on the floor and contribute.

"I have to give my dad and my brother all the credit for that," Hurley said. "My dad taught me all about the game and encouraged me to work hard everyday, and Tyler pushed me and made me able to compete at an entire different level."

Her father, Scott, was a standout player for the Copperheads in the early 1980s. He went on to play for the Montana State Bobcats and later transferred to Wayne State College in Nebraska. Her brother Tyler, who's a year older, is a redshirt freshman for the Montana Grizzlies.

"My dad would have us up at 5 or 5:30 a.m. and in the gym," she said. "There were some days when I hated it, but looking back on it I don't regret it at all."

During her grade school years, Hurley played on a boys' traveling team along with her brother.

"I loved playing with the boys," she said. "I think it helped my game tremendously. It made me so much tougher and more aggressive."

When she was in the sixth grade Hurley made a splash on the national basketball scene by winning the Elks' Hoop Shoot, a free throw contest the organization sponsors. After winning local, district, state and regional qualifiers, she traveled to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., for the national contest. She made 25 of 25 shots to win her age division, and went to a shootout with the other age-group winners. She canned all 10 and won the title.

For her efforts, her name was inscribed on the wall of champions. But that wasn't all. She also earned the honor of giving a speech at the Elks' national convention.

"I had to give the speech at this huge convention in front of like 10,000 Elks," she recalled. "Here I was, 12 years old in front of all these people giving a speech. I don't know how I did it."

"I think I was more proud of Ali for doing that than winning the contest," said her mother, Tammy.

Hurley made Anaconda High School history on Feb. 16. In front of a packed house at Memorial Gym and against rival Butte Central, she set the school's all-time scoring record, passing Ed Kalafat's mark of 1,614 points - a record that stood since 1950.

"It was amazing, the whole crowd was into it," Hurley said. "When I finally did it, they stopped the game and I got a standing ovation. It was so cool."

Hurley spoke on the phone with Kalafat, a former star at the University of Minnesota who played in the NBA with the Minneapolis Lakers, after the game.

"He told me he was excited for me and was glad that I did it," Hurley said.

She now stands at 1,650 points, topping the likes of her dad, her brother, her uncle Rob Hurley, who played for the Grizzlies in the early 1980s, her grandfather Bob Hurley and the legendary Wayne Estes.

Next season Hurley, a 6-footer, will attend the University of Montana to play for Coach Robin Selvig's Lady Griz. She's the first girl from Anaconda to play for Selvig, and the first to get a Division I basketball scholarship.

"We're real excited to have her," Selvig said. "We've known Ali for a long, long time. She plays hard, is a good shooter and I think she has great potential to succeed at the college level."

Hurley has attended Lady Griz basketball camps since she was in kindergarten, but didn't realize she wanted to play at Montana until a campus visit last spring.

"I always thought I wanted to go out of state when I was younger," said Hurley, who carries a 3.5 GPA. "I visited Arizona, and Nebraska and Gonzaga were recruiting me. But after the visit to Missoula, I just knew this is the place I needed to be, that this was home."

Cook, a Montana State graduate, couldn't be happier for Ali.

"I've rooted for the Bobcats for a long time," Cook said. "I might just have to buy a Griz shirt now and cheer for them. It's nice that she's going to school so close and that we can still watch her play."

But before she takes on that endeavor, there is still some unfinished business to tend to. Hurley's phenomenal high school career has come full circle: She played her first varsity game as a freshman in Hamilton and now she'll end it there. For her, walking off the court Saturday night the same way she did in her debut back in 2004 - with a win - is the only way to go out.

"I want to win the state championship really bad," Hurley said. "It's what I've always wanted. I think it would be huge for the team and for the community of Anaconda. The fans support us so much and I think they'd be just thrilled if we won."

John Heaney can be reached at 523-5317 or by e-mail at john.heaney@lee.net.

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