Time stood still Saturday night. Twice.
First, came the final 1.1 seconds on the game clock. That’s what stood between the Fairfield Eagles and their return to the top of the Class B girls basketball mountain, and, in the words of senior Allix Goldhahn, “I mean, that 1.1 second seemed way longer than 1.1 second.”
Second, came the brief moment of not knowing what to do when a referee’s whistle and final buzzer sounded simultaneously. Malta’s Sophia Stiles, in that final 1.1 second, was able to inbound the ball under her own basket off the back of a Fairfield defender, pick it up, and put up a shot.
But Fairfield’s Natalie Klinker was there to get a hand on Stiles’ shot and as the ball bounced out of bounds, the buzzer sounded and the whistle blew, several players looked back toward the referee to see if there would be a call.
None came, and the Eagles jumped and screamed in celebration, state champs for the first time since 2014 with a 34-33 victory at Rimrock Auto Arena.
“I was kind of afraid of a foul, but all that was going through my head in that last second was I can’t let her get a shot off,” Klinker said.
“I don’t think there’s a better feeling,” said Goldhahn, who picked up the pieces with 17 points after Malta limited the Idaho-bound Klinker to just four points, well below her usual output. “I’m shocked still. Just at the end … it’s a great feeling, I guess that’s all I can say.”
This was the seventh time since 2009 that Malta and Fairfield have played for the Class B championship. It’s also the 11th consecutive year that one of these two teams have claimed the title. The last team not from Malta or Fairfield to win the championship was Missoula Loyola, which defeated Baker in 2006.
Kaitlyn Jones added nine points and Klinker did have 13 rebounds for the Eagles (19-7). And while Stiles, who is headed to the University of Montana, got her 22 points, Fairfield was able to bottle up the M’ettes’ offense just enough.
Fairfield coach Dustin Gordon said the night before after the semifinals that his role players would have to make the difference for his team to win. They did, with players like freshman Kenna Pitcher, who hadn’t seen much playing time until the postseason, hitting a 3-pointer to ignite an 8-0 run to end the third quarter that tied the score at 25-25.
“Natalie might have had her worst game of the three tournaments,” Gordon said, referring to the 1B District, Northern B Divisional and now state. “But we found a way to claw and scratch and dig. I don’t know … I actually don’t know how that happened.”
Malta, seeking its third straight championship, led 33-31 with 1:18 to play. But the M’ettes (24-2) didn’t score again, and Goldhahn’s fourth 3 of the game provided the final lead change with 41.4 seconds to go.
“The kids played their hearts out,” said Malta coach Nate Hammond, who has taken Malta to the title game in each of his four years with the M’ettes. “I’m just very proud of them. All they’ve accomplished this year. I couldn’t be any more proud of them.”
Earlier Saturday, Three Forks claimed third place with a 63-56 win over Red Lodge. It’s been quite a season for the Wolves, who finished 22-5 a season after they didn’t even qualify for the Southern B Divisional.
“It’s been an unbelievable ride for the last month,” said Three Forks coach Mike Sauvageau, whose team beat Wolf Point Saturday morning to advance to the third-place game. “The whole year has been really, really fun. The last 3 ½ weeks, we’ve beaten a lot of quality teams right down to the wire.”
Red Lodge (20-8) advanced to state by taking third place in the 4B District tournament and third place at the Southern B Divisional. They also needed a win over Florence-Carlton for a shot at another third-place finish. But the school’s first state tournament basketball trophy will have to wait.
“We were 6-0 in (elimination games) until that one right there, and I don’t know if you can count that as an elimination game or not,” Red Lodge coach Jason Reimer said with a smile. “These girls have nothing to hang their heads about. It’s been a great season for us.”