||Last Updated: Mar 8th, 2006 - 22:33:06
Advancing to the State C boys' basketball tournament was no small step for No. 9 Alberton. It was a giant leap.
When the Panthers hit the hardwood for their 2:30 p.m. first-round battle Thursday against unranked Hays-Lodgepole at MetraPark Arena in Billings, they'll be playing in their first state tournament in 35 years. They'll also be searching for their first-ever victory at a state tourney.
But fourth-year Alberton coach Chris Clevenger, who was but a gleam in his parents' eyes when the Panthers last trekked to state, said his squad isn't satisfied with just having made it to the Magic City.
“We're happy to be there, since it's been so long,”said Clevenger, who has guided the Panthers to a 23-2 mark. “But at the same time we're trying to make sure that we make the most of the opportunity. We're trying to focus on winning the thing.”
After falling to second-ranked Gardiner 58-48 in last Saturday's Western C divisional championship in Butte, the Panthers needed a victory over third-place Drummond in a challenge game on Monday. One look at Alberton during its solid 63-44 defeat of the Trojans, and folks might be ready to tab the Panthers as a favorite along with No. 1 Whitewater (24-0) and defending champion Gardiner (23-1).
On Monday night, Alberton fought off its opposition with a balanced offense. The quality outside play of 6-foot seniors Cody Nagy at point guard and Geof Dehne on the wing opened up the inside for senior towers of power Kort Graf (6-4) and Brandon Kohlwes (6-3).
Dehne and Nagy burned the Trojans with their outside touch and combined to score 32 points. The Panthers dominated the paint, where Graf muscled his way to 21 points and Kohlwes gobbled up 14 of his team's 39 rebounds. They surrendered just 19 boards to Drummond, which ended Alberton's season a year ago at divisionals.
In losing to Gardiner in this year's divisional championship, Clevenger found his squad now believes it can play with just about anyone.
“I think a lot of our kids went into that game last Saturday a little intimidated and not knowing what to expect,” said Clevenger, who has racked up a 73-25 record with the Panthers in his first head coaching job. “We weren't able to get the win, but we were able to gain some confidence with our ability to compete. I think the guys know now that our skills are just as good as anyone's in the state.”
Hays-Lodgepole brings just a 13-11 mark to Billings, after going 0-for-January. But the Thunderbirds rallied to claim the Northern C divisional behind tourney MVP A.J. LongSoldier. The freshman, who joined the team midseason, scored 50 points in the Thunderbirds' three victories at divisional, including 25 in their 71-61 title-game triumph over Heart Butte.
The Alberton vs. Hays-Lodgepole victor will face the winner of a first-round contest between Southern C champion Melstone (22-1) and Eastern C runner-up Fairview (17-9). Melstone, ranked third in the state, is led by senior sharpshooter Adam Weisz and Kale Eike.
Undefeated Whitewater will wear the bull's-eye this weekend. The Eastern C champs have several offensive threats, including Shade Stiles, Mark Lageson and Roman Morris. The Penguins meet Southern C Park City on Thursday. Park City boasts a trio of scorers in Joe Darkenwald, Aaron Blair and Nathan Michael.
Thursday night, Gardiner, which felled Whitewater in last year's championship, will meet the winner of the 11 a.m. opener between Northern C foes Heart Butte (16-8) and Highwood (22-2).
State C boys' pairings
MetroPark Arena, Billings
11 a.m. - Heart Butte (16-8) vs. Highwood (22-2)
12:30 - Melstone (22-1) vs. Fairview (17-9)
2 p.m. - Hays-Lodgepole (13-11) vs. Alberton (23-2)
6:30 - Whitewater (24-0) vs. Park City (23-3)
8 p.m. - Gardiner (23-1) vs. winner of 11 a.m. game
Reporter Michael Heinbach can be reached at 523-5265 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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