GREAT FALLS -- Billings West and Capital entered Friday at the State AA girls basketball tournament looking for atonement.
Neither put forward their best effort in first-day losses, and both had something to prove.
The result was arguably the best game of the weekend, the Golden Bears ultimately edging the Bruins in overtime of the loser-out game at Four Seasons Arena, 56-53.
“Bill (Pilgeram) and I were talking about that before the game,” West High coach Charlie Johnson said. “We both thought that we didn’t play great games yesterday, so we said, ‘Hey, let’s have a good one today.’
“Both teams were evenly matched, and Coach Pilgeram, he always has his girls prepared. They run clean sets, and you have to very good on defense -- and if you’re not, they make you pay.”
Johnson’s team was in control throughout much of the contest, closing the first half on a 7-3 run to take a 26-23 lead into the locker room.
West increased that lead to eight through the bulk of the third quarter, but in the final 1:45 of the frame Capital’s defense keyed turnovers and helped the offense find a rhythm. The result was a two-point game going into the fourth quarter.
And so began a back-and-forth that eventually saw Taylor Sullivan convert on a layup with 1:29 to play, tying it up at 44-all.
The Bruins got the ball back with a defensive rebound but, coming out of a timeout, a West High trap forced a turnover with 58 seconds to play.
Then began the last-shot wait, West passing around the perimeter as the clocked ticked toward zero. The Golden Bears actually had a shot with around 12 seconds to play, open underneath the basket. But the ball was passed back outside, causing Johnson to call a timeout with 4.9 seconds remaining, pointing to his head with both hands, begging his team to realize the situation.
“We were playing for the last shot. I’m not sure … State tournament sometimes, for whatever reason messes with the girls,” Johnson said. “I don’t know, nerves? But for some reason we weren’t looking to score there.”
Capital didn’t allow a good look for the final shot, and the game went to extra time.
Megan Lindbo tied the game again at 46 with a pair of free throws with 2:54 to play in OT, but Shayla Montague responded with the biggest shot of the game -- a corner 3 to put West up 49-46 with 1:54 to play.
The Golden Bears never again trailed -- but the Bruins certainly made it interesting.
It was a one-point game with 57 seconds to play and, after a pair of West High free throws, Capital got a look from deep with 25 seconds remaining.
The shot was just off the mark, and Montague then came up with the second-biggest play of the game, grabbing the rebound and forcing another Capital foul with 25 seconds to play.
Lindbo, fouled on a 3-point shot with five seconds remaining, hit two to make it a two-point game, but Raquel Jimenez -- who scored 20 for West High, including five overtime free throws -- hit one of two and Capital couldn’t quite get a last-gasp 3-pointer off before the horn, ending it.
“You’ve gotta be proud of our team. That was a great State tournament basketball game,” Pilgeram said. “You come here and every team’s good, every team can compete. And I thought the heart that our team showed. The amount of pride I have right now after that game -- win or loss -- just because of what they did in coming back after being down in the third quarter, fighting back, the teamwork that they showed, the heart that they showed … it is just a great group of girls.
“The tournament didn’t end exactly the way we wanted it to, but we gained some valuable experience. I know the girls who are going to be back are going to be hungry … but on the other side I’m heartbroken that we won’t have the three seniors, plus Mary (Bryggman), coming back. It was going to end this weekend sometime anyway, but I’m sad about that. I’m very proud of this team of girls, proud to be their coach. I think we showed the kind of character we have.”
Pilgeram’s three active seniors were Shelby VanHemelryck, Aryn Cummings and Shea Samson. Bryggman, also a senior, was unable to play this season because of knee surgeries, but serves as a student-coach throughout the year.
Lindbo led Capital with 12 points in the loss, while Katie Culver finished with a double-double of 10 points and 10 rebounds. Sullivan scored nine, and Sydney Sheridan added eight.
The team will return next season with plenty of experience, and will have plenty of what-ifs, having lost a game so close. Any one play, on either end of the floor, could have flipped the results. But that, Pilgeram said, is why they’re out there.
“That’s sports. That’s basketball. And we’ll put our hand in every time,” he said. “That’s what we’re here for is to compete and play.”