HELENA — The Bengals are going to state.
The Helena High boys basketball team is state-bound after winning a crosstown grinder that also ended Capital's season.
The Bengals (6-14), who entered the Western AA Divisional Tournament as the No. 6-seed, earned the trip by advancing to the third place game with their 33-31 win over Capital on Saturday morning.
Helena then took third in the tournament later in the day with a 42-28 overtime victory over Glacier.
“For us, sitting at sixth in the conference, to come out and earn a trip to state is huge for us,” Helena High coach Brandon Day said. “It’s amazing the effort these guys have given to get to state.”
In round three of crosstown, the Bengals and Bruins provided similar theater as the first go-arounds, gritting through long, defensive possessions.
The Bengals mustered a comeback after trailing 19-13 at halftime. Even when the Bruins had the Bengals down by nine, Helena didn’t waver. The Bengals went to senior leader Connor Murgel, and the guard stepped up.
Murgel finished with a game-high 17 points, ripping down five offensive rebounds that mostly led to second-chance points for the Bengals.
In a game where neither team shot high percentages, each extra possession mattered a little bit more.
And in a game where scoring was difficult to come by, free throws were perhaps the most valuable commodity. The Bruins (6-13) entered the fourth quarter in favorable position to pick up points from the line, but couldn’t convert at a high clip.
“We didn’t lose because of lack of effort that’s for sure,” Bruins coach Guy Almquist said. “This team has faced a lot of adversity, and as we know, more this week. For our kids to hang in there and have a shot at the end is a great job by them. At the end of the day, we couldn’t get a couple of big rebounds late. We didn’t make enough plays. You shoot 7 of 20 from the foul line. You don’t have to make it too difficult. If we make free throws we’re talking about a different story right now.”
Capital played the tournament without leading scorer Bridger Grovom, who was sidelined with an injury.
“I give Capital a lot of credit to come in here without Grovom, a fantastic shooter,” Day said. “The boys started out a little sluggish and that second half they caused some problems with their pressure. I’m proud of them for how they came back.”
Trevor Swanson led the Bruins in scoring, putting up a team-high 11 points thanks to a 3-for-4 effort from deep.
The Bengals landed an upset of Flathead in the first round of the tournament before dropping a semifinal game to Hellgate, 58-32. The win over Capital pushed the Bengals into the state tournament picture and the third-place game at the divisional tournament.
Capital’s season ended in the Bengals’ gym.
Almquist appreciated his team this season, crediting his seniors for sticking with his program through their high school careers and embrace the challenge of a difficult season. Almquist said it was the team’s togetherness that most encapsulated this year’s group.
“I’m very proud of them for hanging in there and doing the best they could,” Almquist said.
As the drama kept unfolding in The Jungle on Saturday, Almquist noted the positive atmosphere the AA divisional tournament spawned. Glacier and Flathead thrilled fans with a triple overtime game before Capital and Helena High battled to a last-second second shot attempt.
“I’m very thankful that the AA is not on the outside looking in anymore,” Almquist said.
Helena 42, Glacier 38 (OT)
Helena continued to peak at the right time. The Bengals struggled throughout the season winning close games, but they learned how to win them for the postseason.
The Bengals won three games in the AA Western Conference divisional tournament, and took third place and advanced to the state tournament.
"We talked about this season how what mattered was the divisional tournament," coach Brandon Day said. "We had to keep improving. And we are. We are playing better basketball now."
Helena came out inspired in the game and dominated for more than three quarters. The largest lead was by 12 points. Glacier, however, came back to to take the lead late the fourth quarter.
Helena's Alex Johnson, who had been scoreless in the game, hit a 3-pointer to send the game into overtime.
"What won that game for us was our defense," Day said. "Both teams were tired. Glacier won their early game in overtime against their crosstown rival. It was a matter of who had what left."
Connor Murgel hit a 3-pointer at the end of overtime to take a two-point lead. Dawson Tedsco then grabbed a rebound on Glacier's last attempt. He was fouled and added two free throws.
Murgel led the Bengals with 13 points, followed by Hayden Ferguson with nine points. Caden Harkins and Alex Whitman both had nine points for Glacier.
"The crosstown games are very emotional," Day said. "To come back off a big win there and come back a few hours later and win this was big."
Glacier 63, Flathead 60 (OT)
It took three overtimes, but Glacier advanced to the state tournament.
Battling evenly with crosstown rival Flathead, the Wolfpack (9-11) survived a last second heave and advanced to the third-place game at the Western AA Divisional Tournament in Helena on Saturday morning. Glacier plays for third place at 3:30 p.m against Helena High.
The loss ended the Flathead Braves' season. The Braves (13-7) entered the tournament as the No. 3 seed in Western AA.
Glacier received big scoring games from Collin Kazmier, who had a team-high 19 points, and Drew Engallent, who finished with 14.
Flathead received a pair of 20-point outings from Sam Elliot, who had a game-high 21, and Eric Seaman, who finished with 20.