HELENA — Battling to the end and breaking through for a hard-fought victory was exactly what the Helena High boys basketball team needed at this point.
The Bengals have played several games close this season, but rarely came out on top.
Not Monday night.
Helena traded shots and defensive stands with Kalispell Flathead, and both teams ran the court with reckless abandon, but the Bengals were victorious in a 52-50 AA Western Conference home game.
Hayden Ferguson made the game-winning shot — the first for him that he could remember — with 3.5 seconds left in the contest. He took the in-bounds pass from Alex Johnson, drove to the basket and put up the shot around defenders just left of the paint.
"That was planned," Ferguson said. "We were either going to (Connor) Murgel for 3 at the top or me down low for the layup. I just got it."
Helena coach Brandon Day credited assistant coach Jason Murgel for coming up with the play, and said the players ran it correctly.
"That was the way we drew it up, sort of," Day said. "I just didn't expect him to shoot it from starting way down here (below the waist)."
The basket sparked a brief celebration by the Bengals (4-11, 2-7), but Flathead coach Ross Gustafson called timeout with 1.3 seconds left to set up a desperation attempt.
Ferguson was again vital for the final play. The Braves (10-5, 5-3) tried to throw the ball deep as he pressured Flathead's Sam Elliott, which allowed Caleb Ferguson to step in the way of the pass for the steal and seal the game.
"We just didn't want to make any mistakes there, and we finished it off," Day said. "This was a big win for us. We've been battling all season in close games, and to close one out against a good team like Kalispell was big."
Both teams are preparing for the postseason, so Flathead left the court dejected. The Braves are the third-place team in the conference.
Earning the tough win could be an opportunity for the Bengals to turn around the season and finish strong with four regular-season games left.
"We have some more big games left," Hayden Ferguson said. "Hopefully, this could lead to some good things. We still have a lot to do, but this shows we can beat anyone in the conference."
Leading up to the finish was just as dramatic. Tyler Johnson of Flathead tied the game at 50 each with two free throws with 1:18 left in the game.
The Bengals tried to burn time off the clock and set up for the last shot. Dawson Tedesco saw an opening, but his shot bounced off the backboard.
Dawson Smith rebounded for Flathead and was called out of play with 28.6 seconds left. The Braves, however, expected a foul call.
Flathead then played tough defense and forced a Helena timeout with 3.5 seconds left to set up the ending sequence.
Connor Murgel led the way for the Bengals with 21 points, while Johnson had 13. The 3-point shot was crucial as Helena hit 10, five of which came from Murgel.
"That's supposed to be part of our game," Day said of the 3-point shooting. "We hadn't been hitting them as much as we want this season, but we hit some big shots today."