BUTTE — Jamie Pickens doesn’t usually play angry. Usually.
The 6-foot-2 senior traded her typical smile for seriousness Thursday evening, scoring a game-high 25 points to lead two-time defending state champion Helena High back to the State AA girls semifinals. Pickens and the Bengals defeated hometown Butte 56-44 in the second-to-last game of the first round.
Pickens scored 18 points in the second half, doing damage in the low post as well as the free throw line, where she was a perfect 8-of-8 shooting. It was clear to everyone in the Butte Civic Center, including the Bulldogs, Helena High would win or lose through its Gatorade player of the year.
“It was a big part (of the gameplan). They’re a shorter team, so that was the biggest thing, I guess, but they got the ball into me and that’s the only way it can work is if my teammates can get the ball into me. They did a great job of that,” said Pickens.
Helena High snagged an early 12-6 first-quarter lead, but Butte, powered by its jam-packed student section, settled in and started knocking down shots, including four 3-pointers in the first half, two each by Brittney Tierney and Aspen Lovshin, as the Bulldogs eventually took a two-point lead in the second quarter.
But Pickens and Paige Aasved, who had seven first-half points, weathered the storm to hold a 23-19 advantage at the break.
“I think every possession is really important, that’s what Coach (Eric) Peterson says, so executing each possession, I mean, it’s tournament play, so it’s going to be a dogfight out there, so you have to execute each play because each one is important,” said Pickens, who made 8 of 11 from the floor in the game.
But for every Helena High run, there was Tierney or Lovshin, even Aly Cleverly or Makenna Carpenter, waiting to answer. Tierney hit three more 3s in the second half, while Lovshin added another, as Butte kept the game within striking distance.
Tierney finished with a team-high 17 points and six rebounds, while Lovshin added 15 points and two steals. Cleverley had four points and four rebounds, while dishing out three assists.
“(Tierney’s) really a great shooter, there’s really nothing you can do about that,” said Pickens. “They’re all great shooters, they’re a great team, so credit to them and their 3-point shooting and they can drive well. Our defense was extended out, so that’s what our gameplan was, if we can stop them from shooting 3s then we can win the game.”
Helena extended its lead to 39-32 after three quarters following a Pickens and-1, the first of many touches in the low post. She continued to score at will, slowly giving the Bengals the cushion it needed.
Pickens capped that cushion with her lone 3-pointer, a shot that found seemingly every piece of the rim as it bounced, rolled and eventually dropped through.
She was joined by Paige Aasved (11 points) in double digits, while Vanessa Walsh had eight points and seven rebounds. The Bengals shot a blistering 13 of 17 in the second half, good for 77 percent, many from Pickens in the paint. Helena High was 20 of 35 in the game.
“It’s just like every state championship we’ve been in, there are tons of people, you just have to tune it out and focus on the game,” Pickens said of the crowd and the stakes. “That’s probably the most important thing is just tuning everything out.”
PHOTOS: SEMIFINALS SET AT STATE AA GIRLS
Helena High advances to the semifinals for the third consecutive year, awaiting the winner between Helena Capital and Great Falls High. No matter the opponent, Pickens likes the experience the Bengals have on their side.
“That’s exactly what it is, whoever can stay calm and focus throughout the whole thing,” she said. “There’s going to be a big crowd, but you can’t let that affect you.”
Helena High tips off in the late game Friday evening, scheduled for 8 p.m., while Butte falls to loser-out action at 1:30 p.m.
Stats: Helena High 56, Butte 44
Helena Capital 55, Great Falls High 30
First-year Helena Capital girls basketball coach Katie Garcin-Forba wanted to try something different as the Bruins entered postseason play.
“We’ve been practicing with crowd noises,” said Capital senior Nicole Ames.
The Butte Civic Center may not be Madison Square Garden, but Garcin-Forba’s intentions showed Thursday evening as the Bruins downed Great Falls High, 55-30, in the final first-round game of the State AA girls basketball tournament.
“It might be strange, we would get people looking in (on practice) wondering what we were doing, but I think it’s really helped us,” said Ames. “Our free throw percentage has gone up, our talking has gotten a lot better, so we can understand each other out there when it’s loud, and I think that’s going to help us stay focused and not focus on everything else.”
Outside of a slow start in the first quarter, there wasn’t much that didn’t go Capital’s way on Thursday evening. The Bruins outscored the Bison 48-22 in the final three periods, utilizing 17-point outbursts in both the third and fourth quarters.
Emily Kidder scored a game-high 12 points, but Capital’s balanced offensive attack was on display from the early minutes of the game. Ames came off the bench to score eight points in less than eight minutes, hitting all four of her field goals, while Paige Bartsch also chipped in with eight points and six rebounds.
“It just shows our depth, because we don’t have strictly a starting five that’s really good, we can play seven, eight, nine, 10, and we can just keep coming at people,” said Ames, who scored four points in each half. “They can stop one of us, but then there’s even more. That just really builds on our momentum.”
Great Falls High didn’t have much luck stopping any of the Bruins, as Capital made 19-of-35 shots (54 percent) and shot 10 of 17 in the second half. Kidder went 3 for 5, Bartsch was 4 for 4 and Capital made a respectable 3-of-9 3-pointers.
The Bruins held the Bison offense in check, frustrating Great Falls High’s players by forcing tough shots. Erin Watt scored nine points, while Jorgie Hawthorne collected six rebounds. But the Bison made only 29 percent of their field goals, 10 of 34, and were out-rebounded 28-16 in the game.
Thursday was an especially emotional night for Ames, who lost her grandmother earlier this week and travels to Townsend for the Friday morning funeral. According to Garcin-Forba, Ames promised to “play her butt off” Thursday in order to attend the funeral, something the head coach “was never concerned about.”
“She’s a great kid, such a good worker,” said Garcin-Forba.
Helena Capital gets its third chance at revenge against crosstown rival Helena High in Friday’s 8 p.m. semifinal. The Bengals bested the Bruins in each of their regular season meetings this year.
“Honestly, when it comes to playing Helena High, when we work together, we can stop one person, but when we work together, all of us, when we’re clicking we can stop all of them,” said Ames. “Jamie (Pickens), we’ve stopped her before. We’ve held her to nine points. If we can do that we’ve accomplished something really big. If we stop everyone else, then there we go.”
Great Falls High will meet Butte in a loser-out game at 1:30 p.m.