Lady Cats Advance to State B Semi with Impressive 61-39 Thumping of Thompson Falls
Harlem falls to Colstrip in semifinal 62-34, exits tournament with 58-40 loss to Bigfork as Cinderella Run Comes to an End in Bozeman
March 16, 2022
The old adage "It's not how you start the season, but how you finish it" couldn't be more true when talking about the 2021-22 Harlem Lady Cat girls basketball team. The Lady Cats struggled through the preseason, their non-conference schedule and their District 2B regular season schedule. They didn't really shine at the District 2B tournament either, but did enough to advance to the Northern B Divisional.
Then the lights came on. At the Northern B Divisional the Lady Cats knocked off perennial state contender and District 1B No. 1 Fairfield in the quarterfinal round. They then avenged a pair of lopsided losses to the District 2B No. 2 Wolf Point Wolves in the semifinal round and turned in a solid effort against the District 2B No. 1 M-ettes in the championship to advance to the State B Tournament for the third time in four seasons.
The Montana Class B State Girls and Boys Basketball Tournaments were held in conjunction with one another, March 10-12 at the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse on the campus of Montana State University in Bozeman. Heading into the tournament, everyone in the gym was talking about the surprise entry of the Harlem Lady Cats in the girls field. Everyone was surprised except for the Harlem Lady Cats.
The Lady Cats continued to make history on day one of the Class B Girls State Basketball Tournament. For the first time in school history they advanced to play in the semifinal round of the tournament after defeating the Thompson Falls Blue Hawks 61-39 Thursday afternoon. The Lady Cats turned in a dominate effort, start to finish. They started out with a few tournament jitters, but senior Taya Trottier controlled the tempo on both ends of the court allowing her teammates time to get comfortable and involved in the game. When they did, the Lady Cats were by far the best team on the court. Harlem was extremely active on defense, corralled every loose ball and swung the ball around on offense in a highly efficient manner.
Defense was the name of the game early on as both teams looked to find a rhythm early on offensively. The Blue Hawks score first with a free throw and senior Taya Trottier responded with one of her own moments later. Freshman Aaraya Mount connected from downtown to give the Lady Cats a 4-1 lead with 3:40 left in the opening stanza. Trottier scored a pair of buckets to close out the quarter, scoring first off an offensive rebound and then weaving her way through four Blue Hawk defenders. The Lady Cats were starting to come alive offensively, but trailed heading into the second quarter 10-8.
Senior Vanise Little evened the score at 10-10 early in the second. Trottier again weaved her way through the entire Blue Hawk defense to give the Lady Cats back the lead. Trottier was just getting started and took the game over. After splitting the defense again for an easy layup she knocked down a step back three before adding another spectacular layup for a 19-14 Lady Cat lead.
Trottier's outburst not only provided a boost to the Lady Cats on the scoreboard but eased the pressure on some of her teammates playing on the big stage at the state tournament for the first time. The Blue Hawks tried to slow the Lady Cats momentum with a timeout with 1:32 left in the half, but the Lady Cats weren't deterred. Trottier again attacked the defense, getting to the basket untouched for another score. Billmayer closed out the half by draining a long three ball from the left corner. The Lady Cats headed to halftime with a 24-15 lead over the Blue Hawks.
The Blue Hawks scored first coming out to start the third quarter but that would be the extent of their comeback attempt. Trottier again found Billmayer behind the arc in the left corner for another triple. Trottier and Billmayer soon followed with layups taking the Harlem offense to another level. Mount scored soon after another Blue Hawk timeout and just like that the Lady Cats had opened up a 16 point advantage 33-17 with 5:39 left in the third quarter.
Harlem closed out the third quarter on a roll, Mount drilled a three point bomb and Messerly added a bucket underneath giving the Lady Cats a 42-28 lead with eight minutes to go. The Lady Cats were functioning at a high level down the stretch with everyone getting in on the action. Messerly put an exclamation point on their performance for the final points of the contest. The senior sized up her defender from just outside the three point line, then attacked the basket crossing through the key and finishing at the basket for an easy layup and a 61-39 Lady Cat win.
Trottier led the way with 22 points on 10-11 shooting while also grabbing eight rebounds. Messerly added 12 points and 10 rebounds for the Lady Cats. Billmayer chipped in 12 points in the opener.
Friday night the Lady Cats found themselves in a semifinal contest against the highly impressive 23-1 Colstrip Fillies, the Southern Division No. 1 Seed and winners of 21 straight games. The Fillies are an experienced, veteran team that has had a ton of success this season, but the Lady Cats weren't intimidated in any way.
The Lady Cats turned in a valiant effort coming out of the gates. The Fillies scored immediately off the opening tip, but as they have done throughout the post season the Lady Cats had a quick response. Sophomore Emma Billmayer drove to the basket, getting the layup to fall and evening the contest at 2-2 just :28 seconds into the contest.
Harlem stayed right with the Fillies throughout the first half. Billmayer scored seven, including a long three. Trottier scored 14 in the first half including all 10 Lady Cat Points in the second quarter. Trottier closed out the first half with a high arcing floater at the buzzer to bring the Lady Cats within two at the break, 24-22.
The experienced Fillies were a different team coming out to start the second half. Colstrip took control of the contest, building a ten point lead at the end of the third quarter 42-32. The Lady Cats couldn't capture any momentum and were defeated 62-34. Trottier led the Lady Cats with 18 points. The Fillies went on to win the Class B State Championship.
In Loser Out action Saturday morning the Lady Cats faced another difficult task as they face the 23-2 Big Fork Valkyries. The heart break from the night before and playing a top tier team early in the morning are tough obstacles for any team to overcome. Harlem gave it their all and competed hard start to finish, but they were unable to stay with the Valkyries.
Harlem trailed 32-21 at the break and fell in the end 58-40. Big Fork went on to win the consolation final and finish third in the tournament. Trottier score11 in her final outing for the Lady Cats, Billmayer scored nine and Mount added eight for the Lady Cats.
Looking Back on the Amazing Turnaround
by the Lady Cats
The season was one for the ages and featured every up and down one team could seemingly ever face. To have it end at the state tournament with your losses coming to the eventual state champion and the third place finisher is nothing to hang your head about. The Lady Cats finished the season with a 10-15 record, but they finished strong and were clearly deserving of their spot on the big stage in Bozeman at the Class B State Girls Basketball Tournament.
Head Coach Brandon Trottier couldn't be more proud of his teams effort and the heart they showed all season long. The team overcame all kinds of obstacles this season and were in a difficult spot heading into the District 2B Tournament in Glasgow. Coach Trottier believed in his team and what they were capable of. Together with his Assistant Coaches they went to work on getting the girls to believe in themselves as well.
The progression from the regular season to the District 2B Tournament and ultimately the Northern B Divisional and the Class B State Tournament was incredible to anyone who witnessed it. "The girls attitude in practice is what I noticed first before we entered into the District 2B tournament," said Coach Trottier. The Lady Cats were already dealing with an injury to starter Emma Billmayer and then lost their leader on the court the last weekend of the regular season. "Losing our star player (Senior Taya Trottier) due to concussion protocols in our game versus Malta. (Heading into Districts) I knew the odds were in favor of the Scotties. But the girls gave me everything they had that game and we ended up finishing fourth, giving us a chance at divisionals."
The Lady Cats caught a break, the Northern B Girls and Boys Divisional tournaments are held separately, a week a part and rotate which is played first year to year. This year the Northern B Girls Tournament was the latter with the boys playing the following week.
Coach Trottier and his team took full advantage, "So we had a week and half break from games, which was nice because we got Taya (Trottier) and Emma (Billmayer) back before divisionals."
Having a full roster to practice with for the first time in awhile completely changed the teams mentality, "We had some great practices leading up to the Northern B and helped us prepare for our match up with the power house Fairfield Lady Eagles the No. 1 Seed in the District 1B," said Coach Trottier. "Throughout that time we worked on our man defense, I mean pretty much every practice."
Trottier said that's when he saw the girls start to come around, "You could see it in the girls body language that they were buying into what myself and my coaching staff, Marlin Lawrence and Derek Azure were pushing everyday. We could really see it after the girls upset Fairfield and we knew we got through to the girls, you could see the confidence level go up in all our players."
Winning their opener against the Eagles was just the start, "Heading into Friday nights game against Wolf Point, a team that embarrassed us by 28 points on our home court in the regular season, the girls wanted revenge. Wolf Point jumped out to a little lead in the beginning but how our girls responded and settled in without taking a timeout it was amazing. Our girls never looked back. We were the hungrier team that night."
The big wins secured their spot in the State B, but their effort in the championship game was a big step despite the loss, "We knew it was going to be a tough game. Even losing that divisional championship game, it was the best we played Malta all year. After divisionals you could see the team morale went way up, they carried themselves differently, kind of hard to explain. I remember Saturday night when we got back to Harlem I told the girls not to listen to stuff on social media, there was a lot of negative comments and I even overheard people say that they don't deserve to go to state."
Coach Trottier continued to express to the girls that they deserved to be in the state tournament, "My girls just used that for more fuel heading into state, they earned every bit of it and worked their tails off for me," exclaimed Trottier.
The Lady Cats validated themselves by winning their tournament opener against the Thompson Falls Blue Hawks and advancing to the semifinal for the first time in school history, "Getting that first win at state was awesome for the girls, not just because of the win but the girls proved a lot of people wrong that night and that excitement on their faces, I'll remember that the most about this years state team," stated Coach Trottier
After some time to think about the weekend, the season, Coach Trottier had this to say, "It's not the win or losses, but just that raw excitement that pure joy to see my girls that happy, for something that they earned and worked so hard for. No one can take that away from them."
The results on the scoreboard weren't as big the big picture, "We ended up 1-2 at state, but to see how far this team came together and believe in one another towards the end is probably my biggest accomplishment for this season as a coach. Don't get me wrong what these girls did at divisionals and state was a great accomplishment alone but having them come together and believe in you as their coach is the best feeling I could ever imagine in my opinion.