BUTTE — Blake Thelen has tried to forget, but no matter how hard he tries, last year’s state semifinal is still in the forefront of his mind.
Thelen’s Great Falls High team dropped a 62-38 contest to rival Great Falls CMR at last winter’s State AA boys basketball tournament, with the Rustlers eventually winning the state title. The Bison placed third.
Fast forward to Thursday afternoon, and the memory served as motivation for Thelen and his teammates, which earned a 57-46 come-from-behind win over Missoula Sentinel in the state tournament’s first round.
“The whole year we’ve kind of called it a ‘redemption tour,’ so we’ll take pride in that first half and hopefully come out on top,” Thelen said of this year’s semifinals, which will see the Bison tip off at 5 p.m. against either Missoula Hellgate or Billings Skyview.
Thursday’s 11-point victory didn’t come without challenges, though, as the Bison fell behind by seven in the first quarter. Sentinel got nine points from Tony Frohlich-Fair in the first 16 minutes to give the Spartans a 23-22 lead at halftime. Thelen hit a half-court shot, but officials correctly determined the ball was still in his hands as the buzzer sounded.
Denied the points, the Bison struggled to find their footing early in the third quarter, but Cash Abbot’s 3-pointer with 2:50 to go gave Great Falls High a 29-28 lead, one they would never relinquish. The Bison went on an 8-0 run to extend their lead to 34-29.
“(Coach Bob Howard) just said, ‘That was a decent half, but shots will fall in the second half a little bit. Pay attention a little more on defense,’ because we kind of lost a couple guys on the baseline and they got a couple easy baskets there at the end,” Thelen said of the second quarter. “We know we’re a better defensive team than that, and we came out fired up, not wanting them to get those easy baskets, making them be perimeter shooters. That was the basic message at halftime, keep shooting and they fell in the second half, but we played much better defense in the second half.”
Thelen finished with a double-double, 14 points and 10 rebounds, while teammate Kyle Torgerson added a game-high 18 points after sinking 11-of-12 free throws. Thelen grabbed half of the Bison’s rebounds in the win.
“I kind of take pride in rebounding, ever since (former Great Falls High and current MSU Billings forward) Brendan Howard left. He gave me a couple tips, said, ‘Rebounding is just a mindset, you just have to go get the ball,’ and I take pride in that,” Thelen said. “We get a couple layups off of it on the offensive end, but yeah, rebounding, defense, take care of the ball, those are coach Howard’s big statements.”
The Bison also limited Sentinel’s offense to just 33 percent shooting, 17 of 51, while forcing 12 Spartan turnovers. Great Falls High was credited with 10 steals, three from Thelen and two each from Keegan Bistodeau, Riley Callery and Abbot.
Torgerson and Wyman saw valuable minutes off the bench, too, by combining for seven points, five rebounds and three blocks in 39 minutes. Wyman’s three blocks were tied for the game-high with Sentinel’s Scott Malikie.
“Drew (Wyman) came in and played pretty well, Levi (Torgerson) hit a 3. We all know that we’re pretty capable of making those shots and stuff, we just rely on who’s playing well,” said Thelen. “If anyone has an open shot, we’re going to rely on them to make it. I think that happened today and it couldn’t have happened any better.”
Frohlich-Fair led Sentinel with 12 points, while Malikie had a double-double off 11 points and 13 rebounds, but Great Falls High shot 45 percent for the game, 18 of 40, and made 15-of-17 free throws.
The Spartans fall to Friday’s loser-out round, meeting Skyview at 10:30 a.m.
For Thelen and the Bison, the redemption tour rolls on, with last winter’s semifinal game a humbling reminder that anything is possible in March.
“We’re going to sit back, relax, watch who we’re going to play (Friday), then we’ll get a good night’s sleep, get some breakfast and just basically get well-rested, come out ready to go. We can’t have a flat first half like last year (in the semifinal loss to CMR), so we learned from it,” assured Thelen.
Missoula Hellgate 65, Billings Skyview 56
Rollie Worster wasn’t sure what happened. He just knew that his chance at a fast-break dunk disappeared following a slew of whistles.
Missoula Hellgate’s junior superstar, a Montana Grizzly commit, was on a potential breakaway when multiple whistles near mid-court stopped the action, leading to confusion for hundreds inside the Butte Civic Center.
“I have no clue. I just got the ball out front and then I heard a whistle, so I had no idea what happened,” said Worster.
When the dust settled, Hellgate was awarded four free throws following a flagrant foul on Billings Skyview’s Zach Schacht for tripping, then a technical foul was called on the Falcons’ Sam Tranel. Worster watched as teammate Abe Johnson calmly sank two free throws, then followed suit with two of his own, a four-point swing that eventually helped the Knights to a 65-56 win in the first round of the State AA boys basketball tournament.
“I think it was a huge deal, just a dagger,” Worster said of the four free throws. “Free shots going in, then we get the ball back after four points and that brought their momentum down a little bit.”
The free throws gave Hellgate 50-41 lead, capping an 11-2 run, with only 4:30 remaining in arguably the best first-round contest on Thursday. The Knights eventually extended the run to 21-7, rallying past the Falcons to the semifinals.
The run started at the end of the third quarter, when Hellgate broke a 39-all tie with a Worster 3-pointer, one of his five in the contest, to take a 42-39 lead into the final stanza. The Knights scored 23 in the fourth to help clinch the win.
“Just to end the quarter like that is always good, and I think we were struggling a little bit offensively, so just to get a bucket going into the (fourth) quarter (was good),” said Worster. “We talked about what we needed to do and that really got us going.”
It was Skyview that started hot, shocking the top-ranked Knights’ fans by opening a nine-point lead in the first quarter. But Worster dazzled those in attendance with his 3s, drives and fancy footwork, finishing the first half with 19 points, which included another quarter-ending 3-pointer to tie the game 25-25 at halftime.
Dylan Holst sank a pair of free throws to begin the third quarter, giving Hellgate a 27-25 advantage, its first lead since 2-0. But Skyview got 13 second-half points from Cam Ketchum, including two 3s, while Daniel Davis added 10 points in the second half to begin a back-and-forth third quarter. Ketchum finished with 12 points, while Davis had 15.
Julius Mims had 11 points and eight rebounds for Skyview, but scored only three points in the second half. Schacht flirted with a double-double, posting eight points, including a pair of dunks in the fourth quarter, and 10 rebounds.
But Worster was too much for the Falcons to overcome, finishing with a game-high 32 points to go with eight rebounds. Johnson added 12 points and 10 rebounds to go with his two blocked shots.
“Second-chance points, we were boxing out better, playing, I think getting to shooters better, too, but getting rebounds was the big key,” said Worster. “We just moved the ball well, people drove and kicked and things turned out the way they did.”
Hellgate won the rebounding battle 35-24 and made 20-of-45 field goals (44 percent), though Skyview was just as efficient with 48-percent shooting on 22 of 46 from the floor.
The Knights move to Friday’s 5 p.m. semifinal against Great Falls High, while Skyview meets Missoula Sentinel at 10:30 a.m. in loser-out play.
“We just have to play our game, come out and play hard, come out and do what we do,” Worster said of facing the Bison.