MISSOULA — Missoula Sentinel senior Lexi Deden accomplished one goal in November when she signed to play college basketball at Montana State.

The 6-foot-1 forward has the Spartans striving toward another goal: a return to the state tournament after their streak of 16 consecutive appearances was snapped last season.

Deden and No. 3 Sentinel have gotten off to a rousing start, picking up a 52-36 home win over three-time defending state champ Helena High on Tuesday. The victory keeps them atop the Western AA standings at 3-0 and moves them to 7-0 overall one season after finishing 8-12.

“We need redemption,” Deden said of trying to return to the state tournament after scoring a game-high 20 points. “We definitely felt that here tonight just because we didn’t do so well against Helena High last year but then we beat them tonight, so that felt so good.”

The Spartans are off to their best start since opening 19-0 in the 2016-17 season when Deden was a freshman. She suffered an ACL injury in their first loss that year, throwing her college outlook into question and leading to her wearing a brace on her left knee as a preventative measure.

Deden, the daughter of former Lady Grizzly Dawn (Silliker) Deden, worked her way back and earned a scholarship from Tricia Binford at Montana State, where she’ll major in engineering. With her college decision out of the way, Deden is helping to engineer a resurgent season for a young Sentinel team on which she's the only senior.

“It’s so much nicer knowing I’m set with college," Deden said. "I can just play and be happy. I feel free. It’s the best feeling in the world honestly. Last year, it was a little tough, but I got through that and now I’m here, so I’m super happy.”

Deden brings the experience of being on teams that made it to the state title game her freshman and sophomore seasons as she tries to help the Spartans win their first championship since 2014, when they completed a three-peat. She dealt with foul trouble against Helena but still managed to tally 10 rebounds, three steals and two blocks in addition to her 20 points.

Deden is paired down low with 6-foot-2 junior Challis Westwater, a returning starter who scored 10 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in the win. The young Spartans also start a trio of sophomores in Kodi Fraser, Brooke Stayner and Jayden Salisbury, who combined for 14 points.

With them atop a usual seven-player rotation, the Spartans are averaging 54.4 points and giving up just 39 points through seven games in an unexpected strong start to the season.

“We’re just starting to learn what each other can do,” Sentinel coach Karen Deden. “We’re trying to get our spacing worked out. We’re trying to find out who’s going to handle the ball. Obviously, Lexi can do a lot of that, and Challis and Brooke have stepped up.

“But we’re so young, I don’t think anybody would’ve predicted this from us. Maybe somebody did, but I don’t know who would have. I knew we were going to have some growing pains.”

The Spartans’ calling card has been defense, and they flashed it against Helena (3-4, 1-2). They held the Bengals to one field goal in the first quarter and 3-of-27 shooting in the first half while building a 26-11 lead.

The Spartans pushed their lead to 20 points on three occasions in the second half as Deden cleaned up with second-chance points and turnaround jumpers when Helena went from its man defense to zone. McKayla Kloker and Riley Thennis scored seven points apiece to pace the Bengals.

“The first half, that’s probably the best we’ve run our offense all year,” Helena coach Eric Peterson said. “We got great looks, but they weren’t falling. That’s brutal when we have good, clean looks.”

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Frank Gogola covers Griz football and prep sports for the Missoulian. Follow him on Twitter @FrankGogola or email him at frank.gogola@missoulian.com.

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