BILLINGS — Eric Peterson called Kamden Hilborn over to the Helena sideline. The 6-foot-6 Bengals coach leaned over his 5-foot-8 guard and said something that brought tears to her eyes.
“I love you,” Peterson told his only senior.
Hilborn went back to center court, dabbing her eyes, as teammate Jamie Pickens shot free throws with 21.2 seconds left, the realization sinking in that the Bengals would be two-time Class AA girls basketball champions.
Those few seconds later the Bengals were celebrating on the Rimrock Auto Arena floor for real, beating Missoula Sentinel 53-49 on Saturday night for the second year in a row to remain rulers of the state’s highest classification.
Hilborn led a 3-point assault on the Spartans, going 4 for 5 from beyond the arc and scoring a game-high 22 points. Bengals Nation undoubtedly loves Hilborn, too.
“I’ve said this all year long, Kamden Hilborn’s just a winner,” Peterson said after the Bengals celebrated in their locker room before continuing the party with adoring parents and fans. “She’s an amazing athlete, she’s an amazing basketball player. The bigger the game, the better she plays.”
Hilborn had plenty of help, too. Five Bengals made 3-pointers, and they made 10 of 18 overall. That’s 56 percent. Helena shot 27 percent on 3-pointers during the regular season.
Jamie Pickens had eight points and nine rebounds, and Payton Aasved and Vanessa Walsh added six points for the Bengals, who really only returned Hilborn and Pickens with significant varsity minutes from the 2017 championship team.
“This is a total team effort,” Peterson said. “I’ve been around a lot of special teams. Last year’s team was very, very, very special in my heart. But I’ve just never had a team that’s had as much fun as these guys.
“If you’ve watched us throughout the year, you’ve seen smiles on our faces and when they play free and loose like they did tonight, the product is what it was right there. We came out and just played really well tonight.”
Still, Sentinel was in it until the end despite shooting just 31 percent. But the Bengals (21-3) never really allowed the Spartans (19-4) to get any momentum.
Jordyn Schweyen had 16 points, and Kylie Frohlich added 10 points and 10 rebounds for Sentinel, which was playing in the title game for the sixth time in the last eight seasons. Lexi Deden also had 10 points.
“The kids played hard, there were a lot of positives,” said an emotional Karen Deden, the Sentinel coach. “Obviously, it’s hard because I lose seven seniors who have been a huge part of our program and dedicated their last four years to it. I couldn’t be prouder of what they’ve done.”
As the only Helena senior, Hilborn gets to put a cap on her high school career knowing she played a great game when it mattered most.
“I’m just really proud of this team and everything it accomplished this year,” Hilborn said. “These girls, they're amazing and they are so much fun to play with. They are going to give everything they have, and that’s what they did tonight. They just played so hard and we gave our hearts out there and we came out with the win.”
Bozeman 34, Helena Capital 32
Teams don’t beat Helena Capital as much as they survive the Bruins.
That’s what Bozeman did Saturday afternoon. The Hawks overcame the stoutest defense in Class AA and beat the Bruins 34-32 to claim the consolation championship.
The Hawks proved they were no slouch defensively, either, in winning their third consecutive tournament game to take home the third-place trophy.
“This season’s been a bit of a roller-coaster for us,” said Bozeman coach Erika Gustavsen, whose team finished the year 13-13. “We knew what this team was capable of, we just had a hard time finishing some games. But this group came into the state tournament really ready to play.”
Ava Westphal scored eight points for the Hawks, and Ashlynn Lewis and Lucy Child both added six. Bozeman played nearly the whole game without starting guard and second-leading scorer Ayla Embry, who injured her left ankle less than two minutes into the game and didn’t return.
There were five ties and eight lead changes in the game, the last of which was a 3-pointer from Lewis, who gave the Hawks a 32-29 lead with 2:50 left to play.
“It’s a great group of kids and they’ve really worked hard all season, and it’s great for them to end with some hardware,” Gustavsen said.
Kacie Gross scored 16 points for Capital, which didn’t allow a team more than 36 points in any of its four tournament games. The Bruins end their season 20-6.
Bozeman 52, Kalispell Glacier 41
Ayla Embry scored 17 points and Bozeman pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 52- 41 consolation win over Kalispell Glacier.
Embry made 9 of 11 free throws to help the Hawks finish 29 of 39 overall from the line.
Glacier led 33-31 after three quarters.
Anna Schrade led the Wolfpack with 12 points. Glacier finished the season 14-10.
Helena Capital 33, Billings West 31
Helena Capital continued its strong defensive presence and beat Billings West 33-31 in a consolation game.
Capital trailed 12-4 after the first quarter, but came back to take a 21-17 lead by halftime.
Willa Albrecht scored nine points to lead West, which entered the tournament as the Eastern AA’s top seed and finished the season 19-4.
Taylor Sullivan scored nine to lead Capital.