BUTTE — One was great. Two was better. But the third time was the most special for Jamie Pickens.
The Helena High senior scored 18 points and snagged 17 rebounds as the Bengals defeated Billings West, 55-37, in the State AA girls basketball championship game at the Butte Civic Center on Saturday evening.
“One and two were great, but the third one was the final for me, so I think this is the sweetest one we’ve had,” said Pickens, the two-time Gatorade player of the year.
Pickens and the Bengals overcame another slow start, 6-of-23 shooting (26.1 percent) in the first half, to pull away in the late minutes. The Bengals suffered a similar slow start in Friday’s semifinal win over rival Helena Capital.
“The first half we struggled a little bit offensively, I think we shot (26) percent again offensively, but the second half we came out and we didn’t make any adjustments at halftime, we thought our defense was great and our offense was good, we were just missing easy shots,” said Helena head coach Eric Peterson. “There were really no adjustments made at halftime and our girls just played a heck of a game and they executed in the second half.”
Knotted at 21-all at the break, Helena outscored West 19-10 in the third quarter, then 15-6 in the fourth to lead to the 18-point final separation.
“Vanessa Walsh ran our offense with precision, (Pickens) did her thing and we had great support from all of our supporting cast,” said Peterson. “Riley Thennis came in off the bench and gave us a spark. Just a super team effort and I’m just proud of all of them.”
“There was no doubt from the very beginning, the tipoff, but those shots were huge momentum for us,” added Pickens. “Riley Thennis came off the bench and hit a couple 3s and that just got us going.”
Thennis, a junior, hit a pair of 3s in the second half, scoring all six of her points after the break, while twins Paige and Payton Aasved hit one each. Helena was 8 of 19 on 3-pointers in the game, while West mustered only 1 of 12.
But in the end, it was Pickens, last year’s state tournament co-MVP, that did the most damage.
After scoring only three points and sitting out key moments in the second quarter due to foul trouble, the Montana Lady Griz commit torched the Bears in the second half, scoring 15 points and hitting two 3-pointers, celebrating one by holding up three fingers on each hand, grinning toward the crowd.
“I think my biggest thing is just showing that my emotion is excited so that my teammates can see that. They feed off of that. That’s my biggest thing, if I’m excited, they’re excited,” said Pickens, who finished 4-of-8 shooting and made 8 of 11 free throws.
Payton Aasved was nearly as impressive in the final two quarters, scoring nine of her 12 points, while twin sister Paige made a key 3-pointer in the second half and finished with eight. Emily Feller joined Thennis with six points for the Bengals.
With the game in hand during the fourth quarter, Peterson cleared the bench, giving the crowd an opportunity to applaud Saturday’s performance, as well as the past four years, by his five seniors — the Aasveds, Walsh, Pickens and McKenzie Plummer.
“It was super special. We’ve spent a lot of time together, especially with those seniors, so to be able to pull them out of the game, give them a hug and tell them how proud of them I am is something special that I’ll remember forever,” said Peterson. “They’ve given their heart and soul to this program for four years, we got three state championships from it and it’s something else that, I owe them a lot because they’ve given me a lot. They’ve given me more than I’ve ever given them.”
“What an unbelievable finish for (Pickens) to be able to (win a third championship),” Peterson continued. “To sit in the second quarter in foul trouble but come out in the second half and dominate and do her thing. We’ve talked about it before, generational player and we’re going to miss her a lot. I’m excited to see what she can do at the next level. She’s given everything we could ask for and it’s time for her to move on.”
“The work we put in is just crazy and our coaching staff is amazing, so that’s all I can say. My teammates helped me out, it’s not an individual effort, it’s a team effort, for sure,” said Pickens.
West finished its season with only two losses, playing in the program’s first state championship appearance since 2014. TyRaa Manuel nearly mirrored Pickens, scoring 13 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Maddie Albrecht finished with seven points, while Laiten Lantis came off the bench to score five points and total three steals.
Manuel, her twin sister TyLee, Shea Dolan, Shayla Montague, Kaitlyn Harper and Kinzee Koch will all graduate this spring.
“They’re a good team. They’re long, they’re big and we know Shayla Montague could shoot the ball,” said Pickens. “They have a big inside game, but if you can shut that shooter down, execute things you need to and play defense like you need to, you’re fine.”
It was that game plan that allowed the Bengals to become part of history — joining Great Falls High (1980-82) and Missoula Sentinel (2012-14) as the only Class AA girls basketball programs to win three consecutive state titles.
“I don’t know about history that much, I’m just proud and happy in the moment right now,” said Peterson. “We can look back at that later. These girls can know that they were a part of something special like that, and that is something special. They should be proud of themselves.”