HELENA — In order to repeat as state champions, first the Helena High Bengals needed to defend The Jungle.
So far, so good.
Helena (1-0) jumped out to a 14-0 lead and suffocated the Butte Bulldogs (0-1) with a tough defense en route to a 65-30 win on Tuesday.
Nine out of the 10 Bengals who logged minutes scored, led by Payton Aasved and Jamie Pickens, who each chipped in a game-high 14 points. Pickens recorded a double-double with 11 rebounds.
“I didn’t know what to expect out of our girls tonight,” Bengals coach Eric Peterson said. “That was a nice surprise. We had a great contribution out of everybody.”
With Gov. Steve Bullock and Carroll College coaches watching from stands, the Bengals put on a show to start their 2017 campaign.
Pickens scored eight points during the 14-0 run to begin the game, highlighting an aggressive, confident Bengals group. The press created turnovers, hampering the Bulldogs for 30 total in the game, and created a big margin early.
“We expect that all year,” Pickens, the 6-foot-2 University of Montana commit, said. “We work on that every day in practice. Coach says less than 10 points every quarter. We want to win every quarter and score more than them and let them score few. We did that tonight.”
The Bengals led the entire way, taking a 35-15 lead into halftime. Butte battled evenly in the third quarter, but Helena's lead was never in question.
“Real unselfish play,” Peterson said. “Girls were very confident out there shooting the basketball. There was a lot of good things out there tonight.”
The Bengals’ speed and size paid dividends each quarter. For a team that returned two starters from a 20-3 championship program, the Bengals looked reloaded Tuesday. The Bulldogs weren’t able to score in both opening quarters until half of the time expired.
“Size, length, speed,” Bulldogs coach Maury Cook said. “That’s something we have a hard time simulating in practice. We press. Our game plan is to play fast. But when you run up against kids like that, it’s just hard to simulate that speed. I thought we worked real hard.”
Butte had trouble putting together runs of their own, generating only two 5-0 runs at their peak on Tuesday. The Bulldogs are a relatively young group, returning two starters from last year’s team. Everything Cook has installed for his team so far is new, giving his players a bigger learning curve.
A large learning curve plus a season-opener against the Bengals spelled trouble for the Bulldogs.
“For the first game, it’s tough to run into Helena and all the experience they have,” Cook said. “Even though Eric says that his kids don’t have any experience… they have experience. They’re all playing. When you have Jamie and Kamden leading the way, that’s a tough group. They all played. Every (Bengals player) played really well. I was very impressed.”
While it’s still too early to know how close this Bengals iteration will be to last year’s state championship team, Pickens likes her squad’s moxie.
“We only return two starters but I don’t see that as a big problem,” she said. “Everyone is stepping up and playing roles. We had nine people score tonight and that’s really important. Working together is a huge key to success. I feel like we’re going to be OK.”
Behind Aasved and Pickens’ combined 28 points, the Bengals got nine from McKayla Kloker, seven from senior do-everything guard Kamden Hilborn – who also added six assists, five steals and two blocks – six from Emily Feller, six from Vanessa Walsh, four from Abby Marcille, three from Paige Aasved and two from McKenzie Plummer.
The Bengals assisted on 16 of 23 made field goals and only turned the ball over 15 times.
“I was pretty impressed for the first game,” Peterson said. “There was no let down from anybody that came in. Everybody felt comfortable out there.”
Butte was led by Alley Cleverly’s 11 points and Brittney Tierney’s 10.