MISSOULA — Helena Capital senior Brayden Koch intercepted an inbounds pass, dribbled the ball twice, momentarily cradled it and then tossed it aside as he was mobbed by his teammates near midcourt in celebration Monday.
The Bruins had just knocked off Class AA No. 3 Missoula Hellgate, 53-51, after nearly coughing up the win as they struggled at the free throw line down the stretch. They became the first visiting team to leave the Knights’ gym with a win since 2018, snapping Hellgate’s Class AA-best 19-game home win streak.
“The last three years, they haven’t lost here,” Koch said, well aware of how dominant Hellgate has been at home. “I’ve never beat them. Never ever in my basketball career. This is my first time. It means a lot to us. Just coming together as a team and beating a team that hasn’t lost here in three years, that’s huge for us.”
Koch scored 13 of his team-high 15 points in the second half, including six in the fourth quarter as Hellgate’s bid for a comeback came up short despite outscoring the Bruins 18-14 in the final frame. Hayden Opitz and Jacob Curry added nine points each, while Tyler Tenney chipped in eight.
Capital owned the boards and won the rebounding battle, 30-25, while going up against Hellgate’s 1-3-1 and box-and-one defenses. The Bruins had nine offensive rebounds in the first half and 14 in the game, including a pair in the second quarter that they converted into a 3-point play the old-fashioned way on the way to a 27-20 halftime advantage.
“They know Hellgate doesn’t lose here very often,” Capital coach Guy Almquist said. “You know if you come in here and get a victory that collectively you did a great job. I was super proud of the way we played. They were confident in each other, and in those tough moments, they stayed together.”
Capital improved to 6-6 with the win, its second in a row after a three-game losing streak. The victory moved them into a tie for fourth place in the Western AA with Kalispell Flathead, which is important because the top four teams host a play-in game for the state tournament.
The Bruins became the first team to win at Hellgate since Dec. 21, 2018, when Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, won. They also snapped Hellgate’s 26-game home win streak against in-state teams, dating back to a loss to Missoula Sentinel on Jan. 12, 2018. Only five of those home wins belonged to this year's team, which has had to replace three college players from last year's group.
“We hope it gives us great confidence,” Almquist said of the win. “If we play with the passion and energy we did tonight and frankly on Saturday, and rebound the ball good enough, we can compete in games like this. We do have a young team, but what I like most about tonight is our competitive spirit was fantastic.”
Koch added: “That’s such a good feeling for us coming off a couple losses the past few weeks. Just to get these wins these past two games is huge for us, it boosts our confidence a ton. When we get playing like that, we’re a good team.”
The Bruins nearly led wire to wire, aside from a 4-2 deficit in the opening minutes and a 28-27 deficit early in the second half on an alley-oop dunk by Josh Wade, who led Hellgate with 16 points. They responded from the latter of those with a 15-5 run to go up 42-33 in the opening minute of the fourth quarter and lead for the remainder of the game.
“That normally would have been a time for us to run away, but we showed our maturity in a crucial time,” Almquist said.
Hellgate trailed by as many as nine points in the fourth quarter and was down 53-45 when Capital split a pair of free throws with about 25 seconds left. Cayve LaRance hit a 3-pointer to get the Knights within 53-48, Koch missed two free throws, and Beckett Arthur drained a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 53-51.
Capital’s Trysten Mooney missed two free throws with 1.7 seconds left as the Bruins missed six of their final eight attempts. That led to Hellgate’s inbounds pass from under Capital’s basket with 1.2 seconds left, which Koch picked off near the Knights’ free throw line in front of Wade.
“We had a chance, but we really had no business being in the game,” Hellgate coach Jeff Hays said. “They outplayed us pretty much from start to finish. Rebounding, they were more physical, they were more aggressive. They wanted it more, and it showed.”
Hellgate dropped to 9-3 but has already locked up second place in the conference. The Knights finish the regular season by hosting Sentinel Tuesday and playing at Missoula Big Sky Thursday.
“I told them we’ve got to stay together, use this as a learning experience,” Hays said. “We still have some season left, so hopefully we can learn and get better from it. They outworked us tonight, outplayed us tonight. We just got to continue to work and realize we’re not there yet.”
Sentinel will have a chance to capture the outright city championship and the Western AA regular-season title with a win at Hellgate. Each accomplishment would be a first for Sentinel since 2018.
The Spartans, coached by Jason Maki, head into the game ranked No. 1 in the Class AA with an 11-0 record. The third-ranked Knights are second in the conference with a 9-3 record.
“What I most look forward to is I know coach Hays is going to do something different,” Maki said. “He’s known to mix it up. It’ll be a chess match. Trying to figure out what he’s going to do is fun. And then it’ll just be another intense game getting us ready hopefully for the state tournament. That’ll be like a state tournament type of game, so we’ve got to be ready.”
Sentinel won the first matchup against Hellgate, 56-44, on Jan. 28. Hellgate had gone 4-0 since then before losing to Capital Monday.
“If we play like this, it’ll be a blowout,” Hays said after the loss to the Bruins. “If we have that kind of effort offensively and rebounding, we’ll get run out of the gym. I’m hopeful that we’ll rebound a little bit better with our urgency and fight for some positions and go get some rebounds with two hands. I just hope we compete.”
If Sentinel wins, the Spartans will have gone 4-0, winning two games apiece against the Knights and Big Sky. If Hellgate wins, the Knights and Spartans could both finish 3-1 if Hellgate goes on to beat Big Sky.
“I’m most excited just to compete against them,” Sentinel senior Alex Germer said after scoring 51 points against Big Sky Friday. “They’re a great team, they’re always well coached. Just work hard with my teammates and just keep going game by game and we’ll get where we want.”
Following the crosstown showdown, Sentinel closes the regular season with games at Helena High on Thursday and at Butte on Friday.
“With all three games on the road,” Maki said, “we’ll get to see what we’re made of.”