KALISPELL – Most expected Helena Capital to advance to the Western AA girls basketball divisional championship game, but the Bruins’ upcoming opponent surely drew some attention in the semifinals on Friday.
Helena High has won two consecutive Class AA state championships and entered the Western AA divisional tournament with only a single loss all year. Missoula Hellgate came in as the No. 4 seed and hadn’t made a trip to the State AA tournament since before some of the Knights players were born.
But tournament time can always provide a few surprises.
Hellgate shocked the top-ranked Bengals 54-50 in the Western AA semifinal round Friday afternoon. The win moves the Knights into the championship and clinches a trip to next week’s state tournament in Butte, Hellgate’s first since 2003. Helena will now need to beat Kalispell Flathead in a loser-out game on Saturday\ at 9:30 a.m. to earn a spot in the state bracket.
The Knights went toe-to-toe with the Bengals from the very beginning. Helena built a four-point lead late in the first quarter, but Hellgate came back to tie the game 19-19 after a high-scoring first eight minutes. The game was also tied 29-29 at halftime.
Hellgate grabbed the lead for most of the second half. The Knights led 42-38 entering the fourth quarter. The lead grew to as much as seven with three minutes to go, but Helena wouldn’t give up.
Paige Aasved hit a huge 3-pointer to cut the lead to 50-47 with less than two minutes left. After a Knights free throw, Jamie Pickens hit another 3-pointer in the final minute to pull the Bengals within one, 51-50. Helena fouled Kylie Lunday, who made one of two free throws. Vanessa Walsh missed a chance to tie on the next possession. Hellgate’s Emma Blakely grabbed the rebound and was fouled with 5.7 seconds left, and the senior calmly sank both free throws to seal the four-point victory.
“We’ve really come together, especially in this last week at divisionals,” said Blakely. “We knew it wasn’t going to be an easy road to make it to state, and we’ve done a really good job competing and playing as a team. We’re such a young team, and we’ve worked so hard this season to make it this far. And we’re just beyond excited.”
Blakely led the way with 18 points and seven rebounds and made 11 of 12 from the free throw line. Bailee Saylor scored 11 points, and Lunday added 10. Pickens was the only Bengals player in double figures. The reigning Montana Gatorade player of the year totaled a double-double with 19 points and 11 rebounds.
The second semifinal of the day featured much less drama, and this time the favorite from Helena took care of business.
The No. 2-seed Capital Bruins jumped all over the hosting No. 3-seed Kalispell Glacier Wolfpack from the start. The final score ended up 47-37, but the game never felt that close. The Bruins led the Wolfpack 24-5 after one quarter and 36-11 at halftime. Capital shot 50 percent from the field, 4 of 6 from the 3-point line, and 10 of 11 from the free throw line in the first half. Glacier shot only 25 percent, 1 of 5 from 3, and didn’t attempt a free throw.
Glacier returned the favor, holding Capital to only 11 points in the entire second half, but the damage was already done. The Wolfpack never closed to within single digits down the stretch.
Sydney Sheridan led the way with 13 points and five assists for the Bruins. Dani Bartsch scored 10 points. Paige Bartsch added eight points and 11 rebounds. Aubrie Rademacher topped the Glacier scoring list with nine points and also picked up five steals.
Capital will now try to prevent another Hellgate upset in the championship game at 6 p.m. Saturday. Glacier will meet Missoula Sentinel in a loser-out at 9:30 a.m., with the winner advancing to state.
In a loser-out game earlier on Friday, Kalispell Flathead eliminated Missoula Big Sky, 37-21. Taylor Henley led the Bravettes with 12 points and seven rebounds.