BUTTE — The magical season continues for Missoula Hellgate.
The Knights defeated Billings Senior in convincing fashion, 61-34, during Thursday’s State AA girls basketball tournament at the Butte Civic Center. It was only the latest accomplishment in an already historical season for the Hellgate girls program.
The Knights ended their 16-year state tournament drought last weekend by defeating two-time defending champion Helena High in the Western AA divisional semifinals, clinching a top-two seed in the State AA bracket. Despite losing the divisional championship to Helena Capital, the Knights kept their competitiveness intact, blowing past the Broncs in Thursday’s first-round game.
“It’s huge. It’s obviously a big confidence boost, but just everything, I don’t even know how to put it. It’s unreal,” said freshman forward Bailee Sayler. “Just to be here, the first time (for a Hellgate girls team) in 16 years, starting it with a win. We’re ready. We’re ready for (anyone).”
Sayler finished the game with 14 points and nine rebounds, one shy of a double-double. “That’s all right, I’ll take it,” she would laugh after the game. Emma Blakely had a game-high 16 points and the Knights dominated the rebounding category 42-23.
“That was one thing we wanted to focus on, finding their bigs, boxing out, getting into them. Taking it to them,” Sayler said.
Despite the lopsided final, Billings Senior led early in the second quarter. Ellie Ostermiller hit one of her two 3-pointers to put the Broncs ahead 16-14 with 6:06 to play in the half, forcing Rob Henthorn into a timeout. Hellgate quickly responded with an 8-0 run, eventually turning it into an 18-4 run to jump ahead 32-20 at halftime.
“We just have to go in, play our game, have some fun. That’s what they always say,” Sayler said of the Hellgate coaches’ message after the 16-14 deficit. “Coach Rob (Henthorn) always preaches, ‘The biggest part of the game is to go out there and play our own game. Just have fun.’”
Perhaps no member of the team was more excited than Henthorn, Hellgate’s fourth-year coach, who had a noticeable grin on his face following the win.
“He just came in and yelled. He said, ‘That’s our game. Keep doing it, keep it up,’” Sayler said of Henthorn’s message after the game. “It’s awesome. It gives us all a burst of energy. When we were down, he came over and told us to get into it. He wasn’t really mad, he just told us to keep it up, keep going.”
Hellgate outscored Senior 47-18 in the final 22 minutes, including a 21-5 fourth quarter. After making a respectable 8-of-19 field goals in the first half, the Broncs were just 6 of 24 in the final 16 minutes, 25 percent. Senior was just 5-of-18 from behind the 3-point line and was forced into 24 turnovers.
PHOTOS: SEMIFINALS SET AT STATE AA GIRLS
The Knights, meanwhile, flirted with 50 percent from the floor, connecting on 23 of 51 field goals, but it was offensive rebounds and second-chance points that led to the rout. Hellgate collected 20 offensive rebounds, six from Kylie Sunday and three each from Sayler, Blakely and Lauren Dick. Addy Heaphy added five points, five rebounds and four assists in the win.
Lily Johnson had a team-high 10 points and seven rebounds for Senior, which plays in a noon loser-out game on Friday against either Billings West or Kalispell Glacier.
Hellgate returns to the semifinals for the first time since 2003, an eventual runner-up season, before this year’s outstanding freshmen — Sayler, Heaphy, Dick, Perry Paffhausen and Keke Davis — were even born. The young and dangerous Knights will face either West or Glacier in Friday’s 6:30 p.m. semifinal, which team doesn’t matter to them, with plans of continuing the unexpected magic they have grown accustomed to.
“Exactly, there’s nothing to lose so we go out and give it our all. So much fun, everything about it,” grinned Sayler.
Stats: Missoula Hellgate 61, Billings Senior 34
Billings West 41, Kalispell Glacier 20
TyRaa Manuel scored a game-high 12 points, sister TyLee added 10 and the Billings West girls basketball team advanced past Kalispell Glacier, 41-20, in a slow-paced first-round game at the State AA girls basketball tournament on Thursday.
TyRaa Manuel made 4-of-8 field goals and collected nine rebounds, one shy of a double-double, while TyLee had eight rebounds and a steal for the Golden Bears, which advance to Friday’s 6:30 p.m. semifinal against Missoula Hellgate.
“I think we pressured the ball really well, closed out on shooters and stopped their posts really well,” said West senior Kinzee Koch, who came off the bench for three points and three rebounds.
West’s defense flustered the Wolfpack, who managed only six field goals in the game. Glacier was 6-of-34 shooting, a dismal 18 percent, and managed only 10 points in the first half.
“I definitely think at the beginning of the game, the slow pace was getting to us, but (West coach Charlie Johnson) always told us to keep pushing the ball, keep running and we knew eventually our shots would fall and that our defense would lead to our offense,” said Koch.
After opening the game with a 12-6 lead after the first quarter, West managed only eight points in the second to take a 20-10 advantage into the halftime locker room. But the Bears managed to turn the slow pace in their favor, getting high-chance looks on offense.
“It was super important. It was funny because (the Glacier student section) kept yelling, ‘Boring, boring,’ but we just needed to get a good shot to make every possession count,” Koch said.
The philosophy worked, with West hitting 16 of 41 from the floor, though the Bears connected on only 2-of-10 shooting from the 3-point line. Still, Johnson’s club showcased a balanced offensive attack, with nine players scoring. Shayla Montague had five points to go with six rebounds, while the Albrecht twins attacked the basket, with Willa adding five points of her own.
“That’s super nice. I think all through the season we haven’t had one player that dominates every game, so that helps everyone play together and know that we trust each other and rely on one another when it’s needed,” said Koch. “There are pretty much three of us that sub into the games, and we’re all under 5-foot-7, so we don’t have the advantage that the others do, but I think he wants us to go in there and be scrappy.”
Kalispell Glacier was led by Aubrie Rademacher’s five points, while Kali Gulick’s seven rebounds were a team-high. Six Wolfpack players scored, but only three mustered more than four points, as Glacier aims to keep its season alive in a loser-out contest on Friday at noon against Billings Senior.
After entering the season as one of three state tournament favorites (Helena High, Helena Capital), West looks to advance to its first state championship game since 2014, a 48-30 loss to Missoula Sentinel. The Golden Bears defeated the Spartans for the Class AA state title in 2011.
“I don’t think we change anything we’ve done all season,” Koch said of the game plan against Hellgate. “I just think we play our game, we try to keep control of the game and we keep it at our pace, not letting them pressure us and force turnovers.”