BOZEMAN – The Missoula Hellgate Knights walked to their bench following a dominant 48-34 win over Billings West in the State AA semifinal game.
What should have been a celebration was interrupted by a voice over the P.A. system.
The announcer read aloud the statement released just minutes earlier by the MHSA regarding the cancellation of basketball tournaments across the state due to recent Montana cases of the coronavirus pandemic. Then added:
“The Montana High School Association will designate the Billings Skyview Falcons and the Missoula Hellgate Knights as the co-champions of Class AA.”
What followed was the saddest state championship celebration in Montana history. Hellgate coach Jeff Hays comforted his players and urged them to look at the positives in the face of an unprecedented situation.
“It’s a mix of emotions right now,” he said. “These kids are 17, 18 years old and they feel like they’re invincible. But the MHSA is doing what they think is best and we fully support that. I think it’s ok to support the decision, but also be disappointed.
“Not in the decision, but in the missed opportunity to play another game. These guys love to play together. They love to compete. They just want to keep playing and they did everything that they could. But this is something that’s out of everyone’s control.”
The Knights were looking to cap off one of the most incredible seasons in Montana prep history. They were a perfect 23-0 with a roster full of talented players. But in the moments following the game, they had trouble processing the news that their remarkable run was over prematurely.
“We won 23 straight games,” said Hellgate senior Abe Johnson. “I’m pissed we didn’t get a chance to prove it tomorrow. To prove how good this team is, how special this team is. We’d die for eachother.”
The Knights weren’t alone with mixed emotions. The Billings Skyview Falcons had defeated Great Falls High 61-46 earlier in the season and were looking forward to a chance to play Hellgate in Saturday’s final.
That chance never came.
“It’s a whirlwind right now,” Falcons coach Kevin Morales said. “I totally understand the decision (by the MHSA) in Montana and throughout the country as far as public safety. It’s just a bummer we couldn’t cap off the tournament. But we’ll take co-champs.”
But if there’s one thing that wasn’t lost amid all of the confusion and chaos surround the tournament – it’s sportsmanship and the respect teams have for one another.
The Falcons returned to the court following Hellgate’s win and embraced the Knights on the court – comforting their fellow co-champs.
“That’s just a class move,” Johnson said. “Mims and Cam Ketchum and other good guys on the team. They respect us, we respect them. It would have been a battle tomorrow and we both could have proved a lot.”
Billings Skyview 61, Great Falls High 46
Near the end of the third quarter, with Billings Skyview leading by 17 – senior forward Julius Mims caught a lob from Camron Ketchum about three feet away from the basket and one foot above the rim.
He threw it down and brought the raucous Skyview fan section to their feet.
Though there was still a quarter left to play but Mims, his bench and everyone inside Max Worthington Arena knew a win, which ended up being a 61-46 victory over Great Falls High, was all but assured.
“I thought it was going to hit the backboard,” Mims said. “I jumped up and got that and it was amazing. There’s no feeling like that in the world.”
Mims finished with 18 points in a dominant performance and the Falcons are heading to the AA state championship game after a season that saw a 2-4 start to the season before a 10-2 finish and run to the Eastern AA championship.
“This group of boys, a lot of people didn’t truly believe in us to begin with but like I’ve been preaching they have to believe in themselves,” Skyview coach Kevin Morales said. “As long as we believe in ourselves and the coaching staff believes in them as players, we can climb mountains and tonight we climbed a mountain.”
After they combined for 49 points in a 74-72 win over Capital on Thursday, Skyview limited the high scoring Bison duo of Drew Wyman and Levi Torgerson on defense Friday in the semifinals.
“This is our fourth time seeing Great Falls High,” Morales said. “We had a zone picked out that worked against them in divisionals so we stuck with that game plan and the boys executed it. Sticking to that zone and finding guys in their area.”
Skyview led 12-11 after the first quarter and scored 17 straight in the second quarter to open up a 29-13 halftime lead. The Bison never threatened the rest of the way.
“We worked really hard for this and we’re going to have fun tomorrow,” Mims said. “We were ready from the jump. We were ready from the start of the game.”
Things are in flux however with the news of four positive tests for COVID-19 in the state of Montana breaking during the game. The Falcons are bracing for the possibility that there won’t be a championship game.
“It would be a huge bummer,” Morales said. “I was thinking today maybe cancel it before the semifinals before kids got up for a championship game. Hopefully they’d let us play either way with no fans.”
“I’d be bummed out that I didn’t get to play for a state chipper,” he said. “But this would be a good win to end on.”
Missoula Hellgate 48, Billings West 34
Rollie Worster scored 21 points and pulled down nine rebounds to lead Missoula Hellgate to a 48-34 win over Billings West in the Class AA semifinals in what was unknowingly the last game of his incredible high school career.
The Knights jumped out to a 9-0 lead to start the game and never looked back, leading 17-3 after the first quarter and pushing the lead to 23-7 midway through the second. It was a typical performance for an undefeated team with a perfect 23-0 record.
Abe Johnson scored 12 points and grabbed 13 rebounds for the Knights. Josh Erbacher scored 10 points and pulled in five rebounds to lead the Bears in defeat.
But it was hard to put the successful season and the win in perspective given the news that came moments after the game about the cancellation of the tournament.
"Honeslty, it's hard to think about right now," Worster said. "Just because we're in the moment. I'm sure looking back on it later, I mean we were undefeated, we played really well as a team, we bonded and we get along really well off the court. Just right now I'm at a loss for words."