HELENA — The Helena High girls basketball team returns to “The Big Dance” on Thursday in Billings with one purpose in mind – that of repeating as state champions.
But in order to do so, the Western Conference runners-up Bengals know they have to focus on one game at a time.
Helena enters Rimrock Auto Arena MetraPark on with an 18-3 record, and will face the East’s No. 3 seed CM Russell (13-9) in the tourney's opening round. The championship is slated for 6:30 p.m. Saturday.
Missoula Sentinel (17-3) is the Western champion, while the Eastern Conference titlist is Billings West (19-2).
"Our team has been playing at a high level for the last month, and I think we are peaking at the right time,” said fifth-year coach Eric Peterson, who has guided Helena to a 38-6 record (86.4 winning percentage) over the past two seasons. “The team is confident but only looking toward CMR on Thursday. We all know, you can’t play on Friday night without winning on Thursday night.”
Helena defeated the Rustlers 57-34 in their only meeting this year. Helena is outscoring its opposition by an average of 54-34, while CMR holds a 43-41 over its’ counterparts.
Helena’s standout players are guard Kamden Hilborn and post Jamie Pickens.
Hilborn, a 5-foot-7 senior, ranks first in the state with 5.5 assists and 4.7 steals per game, and is No. 9 in the AA scoring column averaging 10.7 points.
A two-time all-stater and last year’s state tournament MVP, Hilborn is currently tied with Amy Mouat’s 1990 Bengals season record of 95 steals.
Pickens, a 6-2 junior, is the AA’s leading rebounder at 12.6 rebounds a game, and is No. 2 with a 15.4 points scoring average and 68 free throws made. She is also No. 3 in blocked shots (39) and fourth in steals (50).
Pickens owns 18 double-doubles on the year, and her 258 boards are just 18 shy of Kari Kockler’s school season mark of 276 in 1985.
Rounding out the Bengals top scorers are Paige Aasved at 6.1 points, followed by Emily Feller with a 5.1 mark, McKayla Kloker at 4.7 points and Payton Aasved and Abby Marcille at 3.7 ppg.
“Even though we lost the divisional championship (to Sentinel in overtime), we did some great things we haven’t had to do all year in coming back from being down by 15, and we proved just how much determination and tenacity this team plays with,” said Peterson, whose cagers are 1-2 versus the Spartans this year.
“Our biggest keys (to success) will be preparation and execution, but also being able to adjust on the fly."