BILLINGS — Jamie Pickens was disappointed with her divisional championship showing a week ago. It was certainly still on her mind Thursday during the opening round of the State AA tournament at Rimrock Auto Arena.
Pickens scored a game-high 26 points and hauled in six rebounds to lead the defending champion Helena High girls past Great Falls CMR 59-38, pushing the Bengals into the semifinals for the second straight year.
“That’s a great start for us. Defensively we came out and set the tone, we were beating them to spots and that starts it,” said Helena High head coach Eric Peterson. “We got Jamie going early, which is a big thing for us, and she was a little disappointed last week, missing a bunch of layups, so she wanted to come out with a purpose and show that it wasn’t quite her game in the divisional championship. She set the tone offensively for us and it just continued the whole game.”
Pickens set the tone early, knocking down four 3-pointers in the first half on her way to 15 points in 16 minutes. Helena High built a 17-9 lead after the first quarter, then ballooned it to 30-18 at halftime. The Bengals limited CMR to six field goals in the first two periods.
The future Montana Grizzly, Pickens was destructive on each end of the floor, finishing with a pair of blocks on the defense end, while challenging multiple others.
“This is where we wanted to be in this state tournament and she comes out and scores 26 on Thursday night, that bodes well for our team going forward because she’s a big piece of what we do offensively,” said Peterson. “We always think there’s a mismatch there, no matter who is on her. If people are going to play us man, we’ll put her where we think she can score. Early on she stepped out and hit a bunch of 3s, then later she went in and made some and-ones and finished at the rim.”
Helena High got plenty of assistance from its supporting cast in the win, with McKayla Kloker (8), Kamden Hilborn (7) and Abby Marcille (5) combining for 20 points and hitting big shots. Hilborn added seven rebounds, two assists and a pair of steals to her stat line, while Kloker hit two 3-pointers for the Bengals.
But Peterson was most impressed with his defense, which limited CMR to 30 percent shooting on the night and held the rebounding advantage in the contest.
“That’s the thing, everyone focuses on Kamden and Jamie, but we have a solid, deep team where we can go eight deep and there’s no letdown defensively,” he said. “Defense is what sets the tone for us offensively. When they come out and set the tone defensively, with our man-to-man defense especially tonight, then when we switch to our 1-3-1 it’s a drastic change for the offense to try and adjust to it.”
Helena High, which lost five seniors to graduation after last year’s championship run, will tip off in Friday’s 5 p.m. semifinal.
“The message is the same as last year, ‘We won on Thursday night, we made it to Friday night, but you can’t make it to Saturday night unless you make it to Friday night,'” said Peterson. “We’re really going to watch closely during this next game and focus in. We have some scouting reports for both teams, just in case, so our girls are going to sit down and watch this game intently and be students of the game. Hopefully we’re over-prepared tomorrow.”
Kalispell Glacier 50, Billings West 40
The State AA tournament may be in the Eastern AA’s neck of the woods, but Thursday belonged to the Western AA programs.
Four-seed Kalispell Glacier defeated No. 1 seed Billings West 50-40, completing a four-game sweep by the Western AA teams in the opening round of the state tournament. Helena Capital, Missoula Sentinel and Helena High all won opening round games earlier Thursday.
“You know coming in here you’re the last (Western AA) team to play. All three of the others have taken care of business,” said Glacier head coach Bill Sullivan. “We knew the Western AA was good, but we knew that Billings West and Billings Senior over here were good, but we didn’t know where they stacked up in comparison to us. We were going to come find out. Those other three teams got it done and one thing that was mentioned when we came out of the locker room was that we had to finish the sweep. The girls were focused and ready to do that and we did.”
The game was never truly in doubt for Glacier, which trailed by only one point the entire contest. The Wolfpack took a 15-9 lead after the first quarter never looked back, extending its advantage in all but the third quarter of the game.
Kali Gulick led the charge for Glacier, scoring 11 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in the win. Gulick helped Glacier to a 40-24 rebounding advantage, a pivotal statistic for Sullivan.
“Big. That’s one of the things we talked about prior to the game was that rebounding would get us over the hump here,” he said. “They have a great amount of size, they do great things in the post and we wanted to limit them to one shot and one shot only as many times as we could. Typically, we’re a pretty good rebounding team if you look at our stats across the season, but the games we win and the big games we win, we do very well on the boards.”
Gulick was joined in double-figure scoring by Anna Schrade (12) and Ellie Stevens (10), while seven Wolfpack players scored in the game. Alivia Arlee added key minutes, scoring six points and collecting six rebounds for the Wolfpack.
Neither team shot particularly well, with West actually holding the better percentage — 38 percent for the Golden Bears, 37 percent for the Wolfpack — and each missed a significant amount of free throws. But Glacier’s defense held when it mattered most, as it has during key wins over Missoula Sentinel, Bozeman and CMR throughout the season.
“Absolutely they believe in themselves,” said Sullivan. “We certainly rely on our defense, we’re a pretty good defensive team. When we’re hitting shots and making things on offense it makes us even better. Certainly today was one of those days, which was nice. We need that to continue as we move on.”
Glacier’s win sets up a semifinal contest against defending champion Helena High, which swept the Wolfpack during the regular season.
“They’re damn good. They have Pickens and Hilborn, and they do great things. You can’t stop Pickens, you just hope to contain her and put as much stress on them offensively,” Sullivan said. “They run a lot of different sets that they like, you have to try and get them out of rhythm. They’ll pressure the heck out of you and try to get turnovers and get off to fast break layups. They’re one of the best fast break teams in the state of Montana and they get after it, so we have a big task ahead of us.”
Glacier and Helena meet Friday at 5 p.m. in the semifinals, while Billings West falls to loser-out action against Great Falls CMR at 10:30 a.m.