HELENA — When Carroll College point guard Kamden Hilborn received word that Jamie Pickens was going to transfer in from the University of Montana, she was ecstatic.
She wasn’t just getting a dominant post player to feed the ball into.
She was reuniting with one of her best friends.
“We grew up together and have known each other since we were toddlers,” Hilborn said.
The relationship started just outside Montana City, where the two girls lived down the street from one another.
It didn’t take long to walk over the other’s houses and shoot hoops.
By the time they were in kindergarten, they were teammates on the same Elkhorn Youth Basketball squad and there was already a bond.
“We were just around each other all the time and our parents were best friends,” Hilborn said. “We’ve just always had a connection and played off one another.”
Hilborn was just a year older than Pickens. When Hilborn watched her friend walk through the doors of Helena High School Pickens’ freshman year, they knew they would have at most three years to enjoy playing with each other on the basketball court.
“It was pretty obvious that this was going to be something special,” Hilborn said. “It just continued. The way we could find each other was pretty unique and we both recognized that.”
Bengals coach Eric Peterson didn’t really know the girls growing up but he watched their skill grow once they got to Helena.
Hilborn was a multidimensional 5-10 guard. She could easily drive through the defense for a layup or find a teammate on the break.
When you add a 6-2 post like Pickens that can also shoot from the perimeter, Peterson said you had plenty of options.
“Our whole team chemistry was just so good,” Peterson said. “Jamie would get a rebound and Kamden would read that and just take off for a full-court pass. There were so many fast break opportunities playing together.”
By the end of the 2016 season, Pickens and Hilborn had the Bengals in the Class AA State Tournament.
A first round exit to Bozeman left a sour taste in their mouths, but they had created a chemistry that could not be broken.
“We just knew what the other was going to do,” Pickens said. “I knew when (Kamden) was going to cut and she didn’t have to say a thing.”
You could call it a modern-day Montana high school version of Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
Helena High School basketball radio announcer John Kemper just called it comfortability.
“There hasn’t been a pair that has played on that level,” Kemper said.
Over the next two seasons, Hilborn’s and Pickens’ success led to a pair of state championships.
The duo could not be stopped as Hilborn averaged 10.9 points and 4.9 assists while Pickens averaged nearly 15 points and just over 10 rebounds per contest.
Helena finished those two seasons with a combined .863 winning percentage and Peterson said the tandem was a rare spectacle on the floor.
“Those were two players that you are lucky to have in your career to coach,” Peterson said.
But as the two friends celebrated their second state championship together, they knew it was over. Hilborn was set to graduate and play for Montana State. It would be a matter of time before Pickens announced her plans to play at the college level.
While away at college, things didn’t go as either would have liked.
Hilborn appeared in 26 games as a freshman for the Bobcats but decided to leave after she was not guaranteed a scholarship for her sophomore year.
“They basically said, ‘We have a scholarship but we are trying to get this transfer post so we don’t have any money for you.’ It just put me in a weird spot,” Hilborn said. “I think I would have ended up transferring eventually just because it wasn’t meant to be.”
Meanwhile, Pickens moved on from playing NCAA Division I when Montana did not renew Lady Griz coach Shannon Schweyen’s contract.
The two got to meet up once during an exhibition game in Missoula last season. It was the only time they were adversaries on the court.
“It was kind of weird for both of us,” Hilborn said. “When I saw her on the opposite side, I was like ‘I don’t think I like playing against you.’”
Hugs were exchanged before tipoff. Hilborn outscored Pickens, but the Lady Griz came away with a 74-70 overtime win.
“I was probably a little mad after the game because we lost, but it’s really nice having those connections through basketball,” Hilborn said.
Whether practicing a long court pass thrown by Pickens to Hilborn in the Helena High gymnasium or just a simple text message between friends to see how the other is doing, the roads they have traveled are similiar.
Things might have not worked out at the NCAA Division I level, but both are happy and excited for a new chapter.
Only time will tell if the two will reconnect with their high school playbook but no matter what plays Saints coach Rachelle Sayers draws up, the two will have the same smiles on their faces like they were shooting hoops on their street growing up.
“We had a lot of success in high school and we had fun doing it,” Pickens said. “I’m hoping we can do something really special again.”