GREAT FALLS -- A team packed with seniors put their trust in a sophomore on Friday night in the State AA championship semifinals.
Jamie Pickens made sure that faith was well earned.
Driving into the paint with seconds left in a tie game, Pickens drew a trio of Bozeman defenders and a foul. That put the Helena High standout on the free-throw line with four seconds to play.
“No doubt. They’re going down,” senior Hailey Crawford said. “I knew she was going to hit them nine times out of 10.”
“I had a feeling she was gonna knock ’em down,” coach Eric Peterson said. “She’s so confident that we want her to have the ball in a situation like that. She’s our best free-throw shooter percentage wise, so we want her to have the ball in her hands.”
“I know I have to make them to win the game,” Pickens said. “But I was comfortable. I just felt good about it.”
She felt even better after she made them both.
Helena, which stalled for the last shot attempt before feeding Pickens – eating 1:20 off the clock before the whistle – then pulled out another trick to help seal the win.
With a foul to give, the Bengals fouled three seconds after the inbounds pass. That left the Hawks with two-thirds a court to cover and only one second in which to make that happen.
Bozeman did manage to fire off a prayer before the final horn, but it was well off-target, sending the Bengal bench streaming onto the court in celebration. Helena will take on Missoula Sentinel in the State AA title game at 8:30 p.m. Saturday night. It will be the first time the program has had a shot at the championship since falling to Kalispell Flathead in the 2000 title game, 32-29.
Sentinel has lost just once this season, and has a pair of wins over Helena High.
“Since I hit both of the free throws, we knew that the only thing they could beat us with was a 3,” Pickens said. “So we were going to let them take two dribbles and foul, because they weren’t in 1-and-1 yet.”
It was a thrilling finish to a contest that, at the outset, looked like a blowout in the making. Causing turnovers, hitting in transition and sinking shots from outside, the Bengals took command from the start. Helena led 9-2 just two and a half minutes in, and stretched that lead to 10, 15-5, with 3:03 to play in the first. The advantage ballooned to 15 with 1:18 to play in the frame.
Helena led 22-8 after eight minutes of play.
But all of that momentum, somehow, disappeared in the second quarter.
Rather, it switched benches.
Bozeman began to slowly chip away, opening the second quarter on a 9-2 run.
Helena managed to grind out just five points in the second and clung to a 27-23 lead at the break, but things were tilting quickly.
“Our halftime speech was all about defense,” Peterson said. “The five points was not very good, but I was focused on our defensive effort and our rebounding. Just the little things we’ve done all year we weren’t doing. So that was our talk at half.”
The talk certainly helped, but it didn’t stop Bozeman from pulling even at 28 with 4:32 to play in the third quarter. But the Hawks never once managed to slip ahead.
A big 3-pointer from Crawford put Helena up 39-34, but still Bozeman hung in.
With 4:20 to play, it was a 40-39 Helena lead.
Then, with 1:57 to play, Pickens was sent to the line for her first high-pressure free throws of the fourth.
She missed the first, but managed to refocus and hit the second to make it a two-point game.
“I knew we needed to make them. It was a close game and Bozeman’s a very good team,” said Pickens, a 70 percent free throw shooter. “But I felt comfortable. There was no doubt in my mind -- my team was going to back me up, even if I didn’t make every single one of those.”
Bozeman hit 30 seconds later to again make it a one-point game, and then Helena went into last-shot mode, holding and evading random Bozeman pressure until Pickens made her run.
She finished the night with a game-high 19 points, hitting 4 of 7 from the field – including her lone 3-point attempt – and an impressive 10 of 13 from the line. Pickens just missed a double-double, pulling in nine rebounds, and also recorded three blocks and a pair of steals.
Not a bad night.
“She’s just a big-time player,” Peterson said. “No one wants the ball more than her at the end of a quarter, end of the half. The trip to the State championship on the line … she’s gonna make the right decision if we get it to her. She’s a hard guard, and we’re lucky to have her.”
Pickens has one more game in her sophomore season, and she’s just as confident about it as she was about her game-winning free throws.
“We are ready for this game,” she said. “We are hungry, and we are ready for this game.”