MISSOULA — The screams of joy coming from Hellgate’s team meeting room could be heard in the nearly empty basketball arena while the Knights celebrated their victory over Helena Capital on Saturday.
Moments later, the players were greeted with a standing ovation from the few fans allowed into the game, a result of the pandemic. The early season showdown between the Bruins and Knights, who might have been ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the state if a poll was already out, still was filled with intensity and tension even without what would normally be a packed gym.
The teams traded runs throughout the second half, but the Knights (2-0) never surrendered the lead against the defending State AA co-champion Bruins (1-1). They held off every charge from veteran Capital to earn a 52-50 victory as they showed their continuing maturity in the latest chapter of what’s become a fun rivalry going back to the 2019 season.
“These girls have played since they were freshmen and sophomores, and now they’re grown ladies as juniors, so we expect a lot more out of them,” said Hellgate coach Rob Henthorn, whose Knights shocked the Bruins in the 2019 state third-place game and lost to them in the 2020 state semifinals.
“This is a game we always look forward to, but this isn’t one of the teams we wanted to play this early in the season. We won, but it was only by two points, so we can’t be satisfied and need to get back to work.”
It was the first statement win of the year for Hellgate’s junior-heavy team that returns all five of its starters from last year. Most of the players have been on the team going back to their freshmen season, starting back then or coming off the bench as they were thrown into the fire at a young age
Not easily fazed, the Knights built a nine-point first half lead and didn’t allow Capital to get the score back within one possession until the final 30 seconds of the game. It was their second win over the Bruins in their previous three meetings after they dropped four of the first five going back to the 2019 season, when many of the same core players on these teams were playing big roles as youngsters.
“As you saw today, we’ve upped our defensive intensity as a team,” Henthorn said. “If you don’t play defense, you can’t play. I think that we’re a little more poised with the execution of our offense now. Instead of just throwing the ball away — we had nine turnovers and they had 16 — so I think that’s a big part of us winning.”
Junior Bailee Sayler scored nine of her team-high 11 points in the first half as the Knights overcame a 5-0 deficit to build a 24-16 halftime lead. Junior Kennedy McCorkle came up clutch down the stretch, scoring five of her 10 points in the fourth quarter. Junior Addy Heaphy scored all eight of her points in the second half and made what proved to be the two game-winning free throws in the final 30 seconds.
The Knights limited Paige Bartsch, a Boise State volleyball signee, and Dani Bartsch, a Montana Lady Griz signee, to 14 and 10 points, including eight total points in the fourth quarter. The twins had combined for 37 points in the season-opening 71-37 win over Butte.
Hellgate also keyed in on sharpshooter Mara McGinley, holding her to one made 3-pointer. Senior Audrey Hofer, a Montana State volleyball signee, stepped up and came through to sink three 3-pointers, scoring all 11 of her points in the second half.
“I liked our intensity a lot better in the second half,” Capital coach Katie Garcin-Forba said. “I thought we started the game good but then got back on our heels. I thought we looked much better in the second half, and so we have to look to put that together for a full game.”
Hellgate built its lead to 44-35 with about four minutes left in regulation, but Capital didn’t go away as its offense continued to improve as the game went on against Hellgate’s full-court press. The Bruins had scored 17 points in the third quarter after being limited to 16 in the first half. They pulled within 37-33 heading into the fourth quarter after being down 32-23 in the quarter.
Hofer banked in a 3-pointer to pull the Bruins within 47-43 with 2:05 to play, and Sayler countered with a layup. Dani Bartsch answered with a free throw, Hellgate missed the front end of a one-and-one and Hofer drained another 3-pointer to get the Bruins within 49-47.
Heaphy came through with two clutch free throws to extend the lead to 51-47 with 20.6 seconds left, and Hofer and McGinley each missed a 3-pointer afterward. Knights junior Lauren Dick added one free throw with 6.1 seconds remaining to finish with six points, and Bartsch closed the game with an inconsequential 3-pointer as the buzzer sounded.
“It’s always a great battle against them, and we know we’re going to get their best when we come here,” Garcin-Forba said. “They always shoot the ball very well in their gym. We know that, and so we need to come in and play really well to catch them on a game here, and we just didn’t do that for 32 minutes.”