MISSOULA — Coaching against his old college roommate is a tad bit awkward for Missoula Hellgate boys basketball skipper Jeff Hays.

"It's never fun to go against your best friends," Hays said after his No. 1-ranked Knights bounced coach Ross Gustafson's Kalispell Flathead team, 67-24, Thursday at the Hellgate gym.

Hays and Gustafson have been squaring off for four seasons, so they've come to terms with the unique situation. You might even say they've evolved as coaching adversaries.

"A couple years ago ago he knocked us off, the first time Flathead had beat us in a while," Hays recalled. "I knew he was a little bit nervous afterward how I would respond to it.

"I shook his hand. I was really proud and happy for him. Handling it that way we can compete against each other and then when it's done, we're back to being good buddies."

Hays and Gustafson will tell you their friendship carries with it privileges.

Because Hays was the best man at Gustafson's wedding and Gustafson served on Hays' Hellgate staff for a while, you could've predicted from the onset they'd stay civil no matter what transpired on the floor. If that wasn't enough reason to stay buddies, there's that other stuff you never hear about: Hays and Gustafson lean on one another during the season.

"Scouting opponents, we'll share notes with each other," Hays said. "We're also sounding boards for one another when we've maybe got internal issues that crop up running a program. It's really nice to have that support."

Gustafson can't say enough good things about Hays, whose team improved to 10-1 overall, 5-0 in Western AA competition on Thursday.

"I have so much respect for him," the Braves coach said. "I had so much respect for him when we played together at Carroll. And just his knowledge of the game.

"It's always a fun challenge to go against him and he's competitive. I'm competitive. He's had some really great teams so he's thumped me a few times. From the tip to the last buzzer we're competitive, but before and after we're friends."

Hellgate dominated from the tip Thursday. The Knights raced to a 19-6 lead in the first quarter, hitting 9 of 14 shots from the floor and dominating the boards, 5-0.

Hellgate led 31-13 at halftime behind 11 points by Montana Griz basketball commit Rollie Worster. Then Bridger Deden put on a show in the third stanza, hitting 6 of 7 shots, including a 3-ball, for 13 points in the 8-minute frame.

Hays emptied his bench in the final period and the clock ran continuously for a while. Flathead (4-7, 1-4) managed just three points in the period.

"I thought the first half we were very solid, but we weren't meshing or flowing very well at both ends. We were off just a little bit," Hays said. "I said, 'Let's try to establish a little bit more intensity defensively. Second half I thought we defended well and were a little crisper on offense."

Worster finished with a game-high 21 points, eight coming at the free-throw line. Deden totaled 17 points behind his sizzling 8-for-10 shooting from the floor. Gabe Adams led the Braves with six points.

Hellgate will play at Kalispell Glacier (4-7, 2-3) on Saturday at 4:15 p.m.

Bill Speltz is the Deputy Sports Editor of the Missoulian. Email him at bill.speltz@406mtsports.com.

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