GREAT FALLS -- It took Kamden Hilborn fast breaks, Jamie Pickens’ big arm, a diving Taelyr Krantz and an in-their-face kind of defense.
In the end, it all added up to a 37-29 Helena High win over Billings Senior in the first round of the State AA girls basketball tournament Thursday at Four Seasons Arena in Great Falls. The Bengals, the No. 2 seed out of the Western Conference, advance to face the East’s No. 1 seed, Bozeman in a 6:30 p.m. semifinal game Friday. The Hawks moved on with a late 3-pointer helping them past upset-minded Glacier, 51-47.
“That may have been the ugliest game we’ve played all year, and in the end we still come away with a win,” said Helena High coach Eric Peterson, whose team shot just 38.2 percent from the floor while hitting just 2 of 12 shots from beyond the arc. “I told the girls it doesn’t matter how it’s done, as long as we have one more point than the other team. You see that in the paper and you’d think that you’d get beat by 20. But, you know, our defense was pretty good overall. That’s probably what gave us a chance to win.”
Helena looked primed to run away with it early, Hilborn sneaking out on the transition, taking long outlet passes, often from Pickens, and sinking the layup -- occasionally also drawing a blocking foul in the process.
Senior (13-7) managed to hang tight, though, and the typically high-scoring teams went into the half with the Bengals (18-3) leading the low-scoring slugfest, 20-11.
“Definitely it was different than what we’re used to,” said Hilborn, whose team came in averaging 57.4 points per game. “We’re used to scoring way more than 20 points a half, and so I think just the intensity of State, and obviously we’re nervous and everything, so just trying to get in the flow, that was definitely different for us.”
Helena pulled ahead by as many as 10 in the third quarter, 29-19. But the team tightened up, making a handful of mental mistakes and turnovers. A pair of back-to-back charging calls also hampered Helena, which found itself clinging to a two-point lead, 29-27, with 4:15 to play after a pair of free throws from Kola Bad Bear.
Helena tacked on a pair, though, and with 2:27 to play led 31-27.
That’s when Krantz made what her coach called the play of the game.
As Senior worked to find a shot underneath, the ball was knocked free and a scramble ensued. Krantz grabbed at the loose ball while on her knees, but it squirted behind her. Helena’s Kendra Kloker had a shot at it, as did a Senior player, but it remained loose – until Krantz spun and lunged, laying out to grab the ball and give Helena a key possession.
That turnover, with 1:40 to play, forced Senior to start fouling, and Helena closed out the game with a few big buckets underneath and a solid finish at the free-throw line.
“We switched our defense coming out of that timeout, back to our 1-3-1,” Peterson said of the break ahead of the late turnover. “And there was a loose ball there. Taelyr struggled from the line tonight, 0 for 5, but I told her that might have been the play of the game when she goes and gets that loose ball and secures it for us for that extra possession.”
Bad Bear led all scorers with 16 for the Broncs and also grabbed 10 rebounds to record a double-double in the loss. Hilborn, meanwhile, paced the Bengals with 14 points, while Hailey Crawford and Krantz each scored eight.
Hilborn said the team struggled a bit with the wide-open layout of Four Seasons, but that having that same experience last year helped this time around. And, she added, all the Bengals are doing now is moving forward and preparing to take on Bozeman.
“I think that’s one of the big things we struggled with last year was getting used to the gym. We’ve never played in something that big before,” she said. “It was our first time back at State in six years, and we’re back this year and I think we’re really just trying to get on and get our shots to fall.
“(We need to) just play our game and not get caught up in the moment. I think there were some of those big plays that they had, like the two charges right in a row. Obviously that’s frustrating, but we’ve gotta keep rolling. That’s what we always say: Keep rolling and keep fighting.”