Florence girls fight off Loyola Sacred Heart comeback, Rams win big in boys game (copy)
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Florence girls fight off Loyola Sacred Heart comeback, Rams win big in boys game (copy)

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MISSOULA — For most of Saturday's District 6-B rivalry game against Loyola Sacred Heart senior point guard Danielle Zahn had to fight through double coverage.

But Zahn did what she's always done in the her four-year varsity career — make plays.

"They double team me pretty much the whole game, so if I’m not scoring I gotta find something else to help our team out," she said after her Falcons held off the Breakers 64-60 at the Sister Rita Mudd Activity Center in Missoula. "Driving to the basket, kicking it out, just trying to get it to my teammates, I mean, that’s pretty much what basketball is all about."

And Zahn has been all about basketball, even when it broke her down. 

Her two ACL injuries on her right knee — one coming early in an all-state sophomore season — have been documented. You wouldn't need to read an earlier story anyway, the knee brace she wears each game is a grim reminder to everyone in the stands.

Then there was last season. Zahn made it through the year healthy and her Falcons sat at 8-0 in conference and 20-1 overall headed into the Western B divisional tournament.

But Florence fell in an early round upset do Deer Lodge and missed a state berth despite a sterling 20-2 record. The Falcons face the Wardens twice in February ahead of divisionals.

"You have no idea. Last year, it was so heart breaking," Zahn said of the loss to the Wardens and missing the state tournament. "This year, that’s who we want to beat. We want to get some revenge on them."

Zahn and Co. have been playing like they mean it, too. Florence has been getting contributions team-wide. It's three-headed monster of Makenna Liles, Rilee Mangun and Zahn have added a new weapon in 6-foot-2 senior Joey Janetski, who has also battled her own bevy of injuries throughout her prep career.

It's fitting that Zahn connected with pass after pass to Janetski all game long Saturday. Janetski finished with 16 points, and coach Duane Zeiler had high praise for the helper that got her there.

"You gotta give a lot of credit to Dani," coach Zeiler said of Zahn, who completed behind-the-back passes on multiple occasions Saturday to the well-positioned Janetski. "It takes a special kind of person to throw those passes, laying them in there just in the right spot over and over and over again.

"I don’t know how many assists (Zahn) had tonight, but she was definitely worth her weight in gold."

And even at a small stature — Zahn is listed at a generous 5-foot-5 on Florence's roster — that makes her quite valuable. It's why MSU-Billings reached out to Zahn, and why the Florence senior will play at the next level for the Yellowjackets. 

And it's part of why the Florence girls, undefeated in District 6-B (4-0, 9-2 overall before Tuesday night's game against Class A Stevensville), should be poised for greater success this year.

The Falcons showed off all facets of their game Saturday against Loyola, including poise down the stretch.

***

Before the Loyola boys bested Florence 77-39 in the nightcap, the Breakers and Falcons found themselves in a two-possession game with 2 minutes left on the clock. It was Loyola's Lani Walker who trimmed her team's deficit to four points, 59-55, after scoring at the basket and drawing a foul.

Walker completed the old-fashioned 3-point play, and the Breakers were as close as they had been since the second quarter.

"We have so many people that believe in each other, so it makes it easier," Walker, who scored a game-high 22 points, said of the positive energy she was receiving from her teammates in the comeback try.

But the Falcons, who led by as much as 16 early in the final period, hunkered down when they needed to.

Zahn answered Walker's 3-point play on the next possession with a slash and one of her nifty behind the back passes to Janetski. She scored to complete the play and Florence's lead was extended, 61-55, with 1:50 remaining.

"Every time I go to the basket, if I don’t have a layup I’m always looking for Joey on that block," said Zahn, who added 13 points in the win. "Especially against Loyola, they don’t have a lot of height. Joey’s a tall girl so we try to use her to our advantage."

The Breakers (3-3 in conference, 8-4 overall) didn't relent, though, as Walker hit a pair of free throws and Sam Clevenger, who finished with 11 points, connected on a late 3-pointer to again pull Loyola within four, 64-60.

But just 3.7 seconds remained, giving the Falcons an ally with the clock.

"Our last really tough game we had where it was real close like that at the end was Loyola," coach Zeiler said, referring to the matchup on Dec. 11, where his Falcons emerged with a 56-49 win. "We gotta go back now and work on some things. Taking care of the ball at the end of the game.

"...But all in all, we're resilient. They’re tough and they hung in there."

That resiliency included standout efforts from Mangun who finished with 21 points. She was 3-for-4 shooting free throws in the fourth quarter.

Florence junior Emma Stensrud also was a perfect 4-for-4 shooting free throws in the fourth quarter and was 6 for 7 from the line in the game.

"Even if (Emma and Rilee) would have only been 80 percent — which is a high number — that would have made all the difference in the world right there in the end," coach Zeiler said. "It’s crazy how close that is. They shoot a lot of free throws every day in practice and fortunately it worked out today."

Loyola boys 77, Florence 39

The Falcons tried to slow Loyola's uptempo offense with a deliberate attack, but the Rams ultimately broke through.

And big 3-pointers from senior Charles Burns were the catalyst.

Burns, who had a game-high 19 points, hit two corner 3-pointers in front of a feisty Florence student section and gave the Rams an early 6-0 lead midway through the frame.

The senior guard was just as quick to deflect praise, too.

"It all starts from opposite sides of the court. We get it down low, and it opens opposite sides of the court as the defense helps over," Burns said. "It’s my teammates finding me. They’re easy threes, and that’s all from my teammates finding me from the other side of the court, so all credit due to my teammates."

Burns teammates no doubt helped, as Loyola's inside attack led to 26 offensive rebounds, according to Florence coach Caleb DeGroot. Senior forward Jack Lincoln scored 11 points and junior post Liam Haffey added nine more off the bench.

"If you watched (the game), it was volleyball out there half the time," DeGroot said of the tipped basketballs and offensive rebounds Loyola recovered. "Anytime you play a team that gets twice the possessions you do, it’s always difficult to win, unless you’re on fire."

The Falcons had some flashes. Zach Christopherson connected on an early 3-pointer to counter Burns early barrage and make it 6-3 with 3:50 to play in the opening frame. Jacob Round, who led Florence with 10 points, also added a 3-pointer in the opening quarter to pull within two points, 8-6.

But the Rams got into their tempo offense from there and scored 50 second-half points to run away with the conference win.

"I thought (we) did a good job of building a slow lead and then you get to a point where it’s not an option to slow down anymore and everyone has to get up and down and make it a game," Loyola coach Eddie Stack said.

The Rams will take it slow Monday, getting the day off after two impressive conference wins in two days. Loyola (6-0, 10-2) draws Bigfork (11-1 overall) in a marquee matchup next Saturday.

Florence fell to 0-4, 2-9 with the loss.

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