BUTTE — Hanging on the walls in the Butte Civic Center hallways is a photo of the 2015 Billings Skyview boys basketball team.
TyLee Manuel has walked past the picture numerous times this weekend, each time taking a glance at the player holding the state championship trophy. That player just happens to be Manuel’s older brother, Kendal.
“My brother was in the state championship here four years ago, so fast forward, it went by fast and here we are. It’s just a good feeling, so we’re really excited about it,” said TyLee Manuel, minutes after leading her Billings West team past Missoula Hellgate in the State AA girls basketball tournament, a 56-36 semifinal win Friday.
West dominated from the opening possession, jumping to a 15-4 lead after the first period. The Bears harassed the young Hellgate team, which is playing in its first state tournament since 2003.
“Definitely defense. That’s something we pride ourselves on, especially these last couple games,” said West head coach Charlie Johnson. “Hellgate did a good job getting some shots, but early on, we just talked about a fast start, we haven’t had one of those in a while. It was really important for us, I think, to set the tone early against a younger squad we were facing to kind of say, kind of deflate them a little bit. I think it kind of took a little bit of the wind out of their sails, but they fought back. It was important for us to get that big lead early.”
It was an impressive start and convincing finish for West, which was considered a state-title contender throughout the season. Following last season’s disappointing state tournament, which saw the season end after a Saturday loser-out game, the Bears set their sights on this year’s finale.
Friday night it was obvious they were serious about that goal.
“It was a big game and you never know what’s going to happen, so that’s what we were focused on, not going in and thinking we were going to just beat them by 30 like the beginning of the year and season,” said Manuel. “Just do our thing and play as hard as we can.”
Manuel led a balanced Billings West offense, which scored 30 points in the first half, compared to only 11 for Hellgate. Manuel’s 12 points tied Willa Albrecht for the team- and game-high, while Manuel also grabbed six rebounds. Her twin sister TyRaa Manuel had seven points and three rebounds, while Maddie Albrecht had eight points and nine rebounds.
Shayla Montague scored 10 for the Bears.
“That’s the fun part about our team, and for an opposing coach, probably difficult to scout, you know?” said Johnson. “You just try to find a mismatch when we have it, and the nice thing about our girls is that they’re unselfish. They love to move the ball, pass the ball. If TyLee has a mismatch, we’ll throw it down to her 50 times a game. We’ll pack it in. Shayla (Montague), she can get it. The Albrechts (Maddie and Willa) do their job and so it’s a fun group and they’re very selfless.”
Hellgate was led by Emma Blakely’s nine points, while three players — Addy Heaphy, Kylie Sunday and Kinsey Henthorn — scored five each. Hellgate made only four field goals in the first quarter, hitting just 25 percent.
The Knights were held to 13-of-40 shooting in the game (32.5 percent) and were forced into 22 turnovers.
Johnson and Manuel were each excited to watch the late semifinal on Friday between crosstown rivals Helena High and Helena Capital. The two-time defending champion Bengals and the Bruins never met the Bears during the regular season.
“We were (disappointed), too, trust me. (I’ve seen them) a lot. The coaches around the state do a good job of sharing film, so I get a chance to watch them and with the NFHS Network live steams, get to watch,” said Johnson. “It’s fun for me to watch because there are some similarities with those teams and my team. They have some key players, Capital has the Bartsch twins (Dani and Paige) and Sydney Sheridan, obviously (Helena High has) Jamie Pickens and the Aasved twins (Paige and Payton).
“They’re two fun teams to watch and I’m just disappointed we didn’t get to have a crack at both of them just to see, but that’s for you guys to write a nice article on why we need a kickoff tourney at the beginning of the year.”
Manuel says she doesn’t care who the Bears face Saturday night but admits defeating one may offer a greater accomplishment.
“I would like to play Helena High. I think we would be a good matchup with them. Our twins (Maddie and Willa Albrecht) could guard their twins, me, hopefully on Jamie (Pickens), but just see what we could do. I’m very excited about it, for sure, they have already won two state championships in a row, so to knock them off would be great,” she said.
Having her picture just down the hall from her brother’s wouldn’t be too bad, either.
Saturday’s state championship game is scheduled for 8:30 p.m. Missoula Hellgate will meet Great Falls High in a loser-out game scheduled for 10:30 a.m. on Saturday morning at Butte High School.
Helena High 38, Helena Capital 28
It was anything but pretty. Eric Peterson will be the first to admit it.
Still, his Helena High girls basketball team found a way to defeat rival Helena Capital 38-28 in a semifinal game at the Class AA girls basketball state tournament Friday.
“To not score in the second quarter? When was the last time we did that?” Peterson asked after the game. “Credit to Capital, they did a great job.”
Helena High was held without points in the second period, stuck at 7 entering the halftime locker room. It was a rare occurrence for a team that averages nearly 55 points per game, third in Class AA this season. But Capital had no hesitations to slow the game down, frustrate its rivals and take control of the game.
The Bengals opened the game on a 4-0 run and eventually led 7-2, but the offense came to a complete halt as Capital double-teamed two-time Gatorade player of the year Jamie Pickens, rushed out to shooters like Vanessa Walsh and the Aasved twins, Paige and Payton, forcing missed shots and turnovers.
Helena High had 17 turnovers in the first half as Capital built a 15-7 lead. The Bengals were a dismal 2-of-18 shooting (11.1 percent), though the Bruins didn’t fare much better after making 6 of 21 field goals (28.6 percent).
“For this team, we’re third in the AA in scoring, so Capital did a great job, mixed up their defenses and we struggled in that first half. But when I walked into the locker room at halftime, there wasn’t one girl hanging their head, there was just unity,” said Peterson. “That’s what did it for us (Friday). Jamie was in foul trouble, she sits more than a quarter, we’re not used to that, but the girls stepped up and Vanessa Walsh really led us (Friday).”
Walsh was held scoreless in the first half but scored 11 points in the second half, including an impressive string of free throws — 8 of 12 — to bring Helena High to within striking distance. The Bengals closed the deficit to 22-17 after three quarters, with Caroline Bullock drawing a key charge against the Bruins, who successfully made the shot attempt.
Pickens, who Friday morning earned her second straight Gatorade honor, was on the bench with four fouls for the majority of the third, but returned in the fourth and helped spark the Bengal comeback.
Payton Aasved banked in a 3-pointer from the right wing to get Helena within 22-20 with 6:15 to play, then 45 seconds later missed a 3-pointer but grabbed her own rebound and softly put the ball through to tie the game at 22-all.
“I think I was on the other side (of the wing),” said her twin sister Paige. “I was super excited. I was like, ‘Yeah, we’ve got this now.’ Once we hit that, I knew it. We still had confidence, we just kept shooting and stuff. We had to try new things like driving to the basket and stuff, getting fouled.”
It was Pickens who gave Helena High its first lead since the beginning of the second quarter, calmly sinking a pair of free throws to put the Bengals ahead 24-22 with 4:48 to play. From there, the groove came back.
Walsh hit a 3-pointer from the left corner to extend the lead to five, though Emily Kidder made two free throws moments later to stop the 10-0 run. But Pickens made a circus shot on the left block, and the Bruins never drew any closer.
Walsh fired a hard bounce pass to Pickens at the left elbow and the Montana Lady Griz commit dribbled into the key, spun through Capital twins Dani and Paige Bartsch toward the baseline, losing her balance, yet managing to move the ball from her left to right hand and flinging it off the backboard with enough spin that it caught the rim and dropped.
“It just goes back to belief. They believe in themselves and they believe in each other. They know that their teammates are going to find them and then they just have to finish,” said Peterson. “When it takes a banked 3, then the next time we come down and she misses a shot, gets her own rebound and then scores again, it’s just having that personal belief and that belief in each other that really carried us (Friday).”
Pickens’ shot gave Helena a 29-24 lead before Paige Aasved followed her sister’s footsteps, missing a 3 but gathering her own rebound for the put-back.
“I just knew we needed to get an offensive rebound, I put it back up and it went in,” she said.
Pickens finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds, sinking 8 of 12 free throws. She also had two steals in only 23:54 of playing time. The Aasved twins combined for 12 points, four rebounds and three steals.
Helena shot only 21.6 percent from the game, 3 of 19 from the 3-point line, but limited Capital to only 10 made field goals. The Bruins were just 25.6 percent shooting on the night.
Dani Bartsch had nine points and 11 rebounds to lead the Bruins, who fall to loser-out action and meet Kalispell Glacier, the team they defeated in the Western AA divisional championship game, on Saturday morning at 10:30 a.m.
The Bengals will square off with Billings West in the title tilt, one of the two teams, Capital being the other, Peterson expected to see during the state tournament when he previewed the season back in November. Saturday’s championship tipoff is scheduled for 8:30 p.m.
“They’ve been steamrolling through the tournament, they’ve been dominant, they’re playing great basketball,” Peterson said of the Eastern AA divisional champion Bears. “They’re long, they’re athletic and we’re looking forward to a battle.”
“They’re a good team. We’ll have to play much better than we did (Friday),” admitted Aasved.