MISSOULA — As the gym lights were being turned off and the bleachers pulled in, Missoula Big Sky senior Dan Morin put up shot after shot in the adjacent practice gym.
Morin and the Eagles, fresh out of a nearly 15-minute postgame meeting, showed their steadily improving play against Helena High on Thursday, but they were doomed by mental mistakes as Helena kept them winless in Western AA play with a 58-46 win.
“Helena definitely answered the bell,” Big Sky head coach Cory Sova said. “But one thing I will say is our heart was there, our energy was there. We just got to be smarter. We’re getting there. Baby steps.”
Helena used a balanced offensive attack, getting seven or more points from six players, two of whom came off the bench. Providence commit Connor Murgel led the way with 12 points, three assists and three steals. Montana State football signee Holden Sampson added nine points and four rebounds.
The Bengals, who had their lead cut to three points or fewer on three occasions, never relinquished their lead. They got timely buckets and made 22 of 34 free throws, including 11 of 15 in the fourth quarter.
“The nice thing about this group of boys is they do a pretty good job of keeping their composure when they have to,” Helena coach Brandon Day said. “Big Sky, they’re athletic, they do a lot of really good things, especially at home. It’s a tough place to play. It was good to see the boys finish out the game and close it out like we needed to.”
Helena improved to 7-5 overall and 4-2 in Western AA play, while Big Sky dropped to 1-11, 0-6 as it reached the midpoint of league play. It was the 27th consecutive regular-season conference loss for the Eagles, who were coming off a winless season when Sova took over this year.
After early season blowouts, the Eagles played games within a couple possessions in January, but they haven’t been able to clear the hurdle for a league win. It didn’t look like they’d even be in the game against Helena early on as they fell into a 12-point deficit and failed to make a field goal in the opening 9:14.
“I’m seeing their improvements, but the frustrating part is to see them playing so hard and cut that to three on a couple occasions and just not get over the hump,” said Sova, whose Eagles routinely committed turnovers, travels or fouls after making their runs. “I was really wondering how we were going to respond when we were getting buried early and were off to a horrid start and seemed like we couldn’t do anything right.”
Trailing 15-3, Camdyn LaRance made Big Sky’s first basket, a 3-pointer from the left wing, with 6:46 left in the second quarter as he worked his way to a game-high 19 points. Morin added a 3-pointer minutes later and LaRance drained another as the re-energized Eagles pulled within 19-16.
Helena’s Grady Koenig scored the next five points, and Murgel splashed a 3-pointer in the closing seconds to give the Bengals a 27-20 halftime lead, salvaging a nearly blown lead.
“Where we’re struggling is consistency throughout four quarters,” Day said. “We played great defense that first quarter. Second quarter, we took it off. That’s happened in the last couple games as well. That’s something that we need to work.”
Big Sky came out with a 5-0 spurt in the third quarter to get within 27-25, but Helena responded with a 7-0 run. The Eagles made another push to get within 36-33 when Gabe Bailey had fast-break layup and Morin knocked down a 3-pointer from the left corner.
Helena rallied for the next eight points to take a 44-33 lead. Big Sky made one final push, getting within 52-46 on a reverse layup from Andrew Gardanier, who scored six of his 10 points in the fourth quarter. The Bengals, who held LaRance without a fourth-quarter field goal by double teaming him, hit their free throws to seal the win.
“Sometimes prosperity is our enemy,” Sova said. “We try to do a little too much and don’t run our offense and so we get a little excited, a little off kilter. We’re trying to bite off way more than we can chew sometimes and forgot what got us there.”