HELENA -- After more than 25 years, the Class AA Divisional Basketball Tournaments have been reinstated, as the 2018 Western tourneys make their return debut in the Capital City this week.
The boys divisionals will take place in the Helena High gym this Thursday through Saturday, with Missoula's Sentinel and Hellgate entering as the top two teams, having finished first and second during regular-season play.
Sentinel wound up 15-3 overall with a 10-2 conference record, while runner-up Hellgate finished at 14-4, and 10-2 also. Both of the Spartans' Western AA losses came at the hands of Kalispell Flathead, and each of the Knights' conference defeats were to crosstown Sentinel, thus giving Sentinel the tiebreaker and the No. 1 seed.
The Braves (12-6, 8-4) finished third and Glacier (8-10, 6-6) posted the No. 4 seed. Placing fifth in the standings was Capital High (6-12, 5-7), while Helena (5-13, 3-9) is the No. 6 seed.
The divisional chipper will be contested Saturday at 6:30 p.m. The top four teams qualify for the State Tournament in Billings March 8-10.
Thursday's opener in The Jungle at 5 p.m. pits Glacier against Capital. In the 6:30 tilt, Hellgate will meet No. 7 Big Sky (0-18, 0-12) prior to the Flathead and Helena contest at 8 p.m. Sentinel receives a bye into Friday's 6:30 p.m. semifinal contest versus the victor of Capital and Glacier.
The tourney will actually be a reunion of sorts for Carroll College alums, since four of the seven head coaches -- Capital's Guy Almquist, Hellgate's Jeff Hayes, Sentinel's Jay Jagelski and Ross Gustafson of Flathead -- were all standout hoopsters for the Saints.
"I’m thrilled divisionals are back for AA and happy our kids get this opportunity," Almquist said. "There are some very good teams, but I’m not sure there is a dominant team ... which could lead to a wild tournament."
Sentinelis outscoring its opponents by an average of 58-49. The Spartans, under coach Jagelski, are spearheaded by the state's leading scorer, Sam Beighle. A 6-foot-3 senior forward, Beighle is averaging 22.0 points per game. He is also No. 1 in the state with 49 3-point field goals, fifth at 7.5 rebounds a game, and No. 10 with a 2.9 assist average.
Next for Sentinel is Gage DeShazer at 8.9 points, and Brayden Danzinger's 5.7 ppg.
The Knights hold a 58-47 scoring advantage over their opponents, led by Rollie Worster's 19.2 average, which ranks No. 3 in the state. The 6-3 sophomore ranks No. 2 in the state with 89 free throws made, is ninth with a 2.88 assists average, and is No. 10 at 6.2 boards a game. Worster is followed by Bridger Deden and Kade Lunday in the scoring column, averaging 9.9 and 8.0 points. Lunday is fourth in the AA with 25 blocks.
“We are still trying to get better going into the tournament,” said Hays, who guided the Knights to the 2013 state title. “We are focusing on ourselves and getting better. I hope we can keep doing that through the tournament.”
The Braves are outscoring their opponents 58-51, behind the offensive attack of 6-3 senior Tyler Johnson, averaging 17.1 points (fifth in the state) and Sam Elliott's 12.9 ppg. Elliott, a 6-6 senior post is the state's No. 2 rebounder at 9.2 boards a game, while teammate Eric Seaman is the AA's assist-leader with an average of 5.3 passes.
Glacier, last year's state champion, is even with its opponents in scoring average, at 52-all. The Wolfpack's top scorers are Brec Rademacher at 9.9 points, Kody Jarvis with a 9.6 average, and a 7.2 ppg by Caden Harkins. Jarvis is the leader under the glass with 4.1 rebounds a game, while Harkins dishes for a 3.1 assist average.
Capital is being outscored 48-42. CHS' is led in the scoring column by sophomore guard Bridger Grovom and senior guard Matt McGinley, with averages of 9.2 and 7.7 points. Cade Kidder is next at 5.7 ppg. Michael Nettleton is the rebound leader with 4.9 boards a game, and Grovom is tops with an assist average of 1.6.
"I think our team is very confident heading into Divisionals, they understand there's no pressure on them and we can just let it rip," said coach Almquist, who directed the Bruins to the 2014 state championship. "In general, we're playing our best basketball at the right time of the year. Our keys won’t change in postseason plays, we need to compete on the glass and take care of the ball."
Almquist related how his cagers are playing well defensively in the half court, "which always keeps you in the game."
"We've shown how dangerous we can be if we get a couple guys going on offense," the Bruins' skipper said. "I thought our offensive spacing and execution against Hellgate (last Saturday's 60-51 loss) was very encouraging and an indicator of what we're capable of doing."
Helena is paced by junior guard Connor Murgel, who averages 11.4 points and is No. 5 in the state with 35 three-point field goals made. He is followed by Alex Johnson and Dawson Tedesco at 6.3 and 6.2 ppg. The Bengals are averaging 42 points, compared to their opponents' 50.
Johnson is the rebound leader at 4.3 boards a game, while Tedesco is third in the state with 2.2 steals per game.
“We have been trying to get momentum going into the tournament,” HHS coach Brandon Day told the IR last week after the loss to Hellgate. “It starts with one game, but we want to win a couple games and get to state.
“The teams we are going to play, we’ve played with or beat. We just have to show up in the first half of the games.”
Missoula Big Sky
Big Sky is being outscored 60-46. Camdynn LaRance and Jordan Casselman lead coach Bryan Ferriter's hoopsters in the scoring column, with averages of 8.9 and 8.7 points. The winless Eagles are paced under the boards by Casselman's 4.7 rebounds per game.