The Helena High girls, with one of the best records in the state at 17-3, are among the pre-tournament favorites at this week's State AA Basketball Tournament in Great Falls.
Helena earned a bye to State as Western Conference runners-up. It will open the first game of tourney on Thursday in Four Seasons arena at noon versus the East’s No. 3, Billings Senior (13-6). The Lady Broncs hold a 51-39 scoring advantage over their opponents, and defeated Skyview 44-39 in a playoff to reach State.
Two of HHS’ three losses came at the hands of Western champion Missoula Sentinel. The red-and-white’s 17-3 showing is the team’s best record in 19 years, when Helena captured the 1997-98 State championship with a 20-2 mark.
Helena garnered the program’s last State trophy in 2012, when the team placed third.
“In order for us to be successful against Senior, we need to do a good job of contesting shots, blocking out, and have a winning mentality to start the game,” said coach Eric Peterson, whose HHS cagers are outscoring their opponents by an average of 57-44. “Defensively, we’ll want to come out and try and control the game from the tip. And on offense, we need to be patient and pass up good shots for great shots, and get out in transition.”
Helena has a nice blend of youth and experience, with five seniors on the roster, including Hailey Crawford, Taelyr Krantz, Jessica Ellsworth, Kendra Kloker and Sam Holman.
“As with every group of seniors, they are a special group,” Peterson said. “However, these girls were incoming freshmen when I had the opportunity to become the head coach, and it’s been an amazing ride watching them mature into great basketball players, but even better people.
“They’ve put countless hours into their studies, volunteering, and in the gym, and will leave this program having touched many people’s hearts, but no more than mine.”
Leading the Lady Bengals in both scoring and rebounding is sophomore Jamie Pickens. The 6-foot-1 post is ranked third in the state in scoring at 14.9 points per game, and is No. 2 under the glass, averaging 8.9 boards.
Pickens is listed in at least six of the AA’s Top 10 categories, and sits atop the leader board with a .510 field goal percentage, (107 for 210). She is also No. 3 in the state at 79 free throws made, stands fifth with 32 blocked shots, and her 3-point field goal percentage of .375 (6 for 16) is 10th.
Next in the scoring column for HHS is Kamden Hilborn, a 5-7 junior guard, with a 10.1-point average, which stands 13th in the AA. She is the state’s assist leader at 4.8 dishes per game, and ranks No. 2 with 63 steals, as well.
Helena has three others averaging more than 6 points a game, including Krantz at 8.4, Kloker with 7.3, and Crawford at 6.6.
Krantz, a 5-11 forward, is No. 6 in the state with a 7.5 rebounding average, while her 2.3 steals a game rank eighth. Kloker sits seventh with 30 3-point field goals, while Crawford’s 24 treys from Downtown is 13th.
Rounding out the squad’s top scorers are Ellsworth and Holman, at 4.9 and 4.8 points per game, respectively.
The Lady Bengals were the 2016 league runners-up, and Peterson said the mindset of his team has not changed from Day 1.
“This group of ladies is hungry for success at the state tournament after getting a taste last year,” he said. “They’ve proven to themselves, through 20 games this year, that they belong with the elite teams in the state, and are excited for the opportunity to compete for a championship.”