By Ryan Divish
SHELBY - It's been has been almost two months since the Harlem boys basketball team has tasted defeat. It didn't taste very good back then and it was downright sour on Saturday night as the Cut Bank Wolves downed the Wildcats, 79-66, to capture the North-East B divisional championship.
The Wildcats' only loss during the regular season came against the Havre Blue Ponies on Dec. 13. After that, Harlem ripped off 19 consecutive wins heading into Saturday night's championship game. However, Keithan Gregg and the Wolves put an end to all of that with a scintillating performance.
Gregg, a 6-1 junior guard, put on a dominating show, scoring 38 points, dishing out eight assists and knocking down six three-pointers to lead the top-ranked and undefeated Wolves.
"We didn't have an answer for Keithan Gregg," said Harlem head coach Kyle Bigby. "We tried different things. We put Colby (Fetter), Ben (Carrywater), Chris (Cole) and Hank (Brockie) on him, but it didn't stop him. You can't stop someone when they are that hot."
Gregg wasn't hot, he was an inferno. With the rest of his team looking a little tight early on, Gregg was anything but. He knocked down four three-pointers in the first half, which erased a 10-point Wildcat lead.
"We certainly had our chances," Bigby said. "Especially early on in the game when we were hitting from the outside."
Indeed, the Wildcats looked to have conquered the shooting woes that had plagued them earlier in the tournament. Five different players sank three-pointers in the first half for the Wildcats as they grabbed a 33-29 halftime lead.
However, the shots that fell in the first half began rimming out in the second half. Harlem went scoreless for a three-minute stretch during the third quarter, allowing Cut Bank to grab the lead. Gregg and teammate Tanner Geer combined for a 10-2 run as the Wolves took control near the end of the third quarter.
But if one thing was apparent during Harlem's impressive winning streak, it's that the Wildcats don't get rattled in close games because they've played in plenty of them.
A Gregg runner in the lane gave Cut Bank a 63-53 lead with 3:35 remaining in the game. But, as they have done all season, the Wildcats answered.
A tough putback by Brockie and a pair of Cole layups in transition - the second courtesy of a Fetter steal - trimmed the lead to 63-60.
Cut Bank answered as Geer scored inside to push the lead back to five. Cole came back with a score of his own on a nice move inside. But Gregg broke the Harlem press with a nifty pass over the top to find a wide-open Chad Larson to extend the lead back to five.
The Wildcats were forced to foul down the stretch. Gregg iced the game by making all eight of his attempts.
For the game Harlem shot an icy 37 percent from the field on 23-of-62 shooting. The players did make 10-18 from three-point range. But after his team shot poorly in the opening game of the tournament and even worse against Fairfield in the semifinals, Bigby could only shake his head at his team's shooting woes.
"That's the worst stretch of shooting I have ever seen from a Harlem team," Bigby said. "We had good looks and the kids squared up and took good shots, but they didn't fall."
Geer finished with 15 points while Larson added 11 and a game-high 14 rebounds for the Wolves. Cole led Harlem with 18 points on 6-18 shooting. The all-state guard didn't get many open looks and was forced to work for every shot. Carrywater added 13 points and 10 rebounds while Brockie chipped in with 12 for the Wildcats.
"It was a well-fought game," said Fetter, who finished with eight points in the game. "Keithan shot the ball really well."
Despite the loss, Harlem is still headed to this weekend's Class B state tournament in Butte where it will face Manhattan in the first round. It's something that Bigby and his team talked about following the loss.
"Obviously, they are going to be a little down. That's normal," Bigby said. "But we talked after the game and they are positive about this weekend. As far as we're concerned, the state title is still going to go through us."
Said Fetter: "We're still the defending state champs and they can't take that away until they win it. We wouldn't mind seeing them in Butte. They got us once, but nobody beats us twice."