HELENA — For much of the season, the Helena High girls basketball team was trying to find itself and find its formula for success.
During the Bengals 5-7 start, there were plenty of ups and downs, as the three-time defending champions showed glimpses of strength, but failed to close out key games against Helena Capital, Billings West and Glacier.
Yet, it all changed last Thursday, when Helena High pulled off its own rally, and upset then No. 2 Missoula Hellgate. Riley Thennis scored some huge buckets, McKayla Kloker hit a couple of clutch 3-pointers and the defense locked down.
In other words, it was old-school Helena girls basketball.
But more than anything, the Bengals had to prove to themselves they could beat an upper-echelon team in the state and now that they have done that, fifth-ranked Helena looks to keeps its momentum going, Thursday night against Missoula Sentinel.
According to head coach Eric Peterson, defense will be the key.
"We just have to go out there and play with our hair on fire," He said after the win over Hellgate. "We have to play hard and fast on defense. Our offense will take care of itself. (Against Hellgate) we only scored 38 points, but we held them to 37 and that's what we have been known for — our defense."
That defense will be challenged Thursday night by Lexi Deden, Class AA's leading scorer at 16.8 ppg. The Spartans also boast Challis Westwater, who averages 10.5 points and 8.9 rebounds, leaving her behind only Capital's Paige Bartsch who leads AA with an average of 9.8.
Caroline Bullock and Elizabeth Heuiser will battle inside for the Bengals, while Emily Feller and Kylie Lantz will play key roles, along with freshman Maloree English, who should see her role continue to increase.
The fifth-ranked Bengals will host the third-ranked Spartans Thursday inside the Jungle at 7:15 p.m.
The Helena High boys team, which is coming off a loss to No. 1 Missoula Hellgate last Thursday, will travel to fourth-ranked Sentinel (11-2, 7-2) Thursday night (7:15 p.m.) before returning home Saturday, for Senior Day against Missoula Big Sky.
The Bengals (5-8, 4-5), who will honor seniors Logan Brown, Hayden Ferguson and Ayden Fasbender, will tip off against the Eagles (1-13, 1-9) at 3:30 p.m.
Double dip of top-5 basketball Saturday in Zoo
While a lot of the state's focus Saturday will be on the state wrestling tournament in Billings, there will be a pair of marquee basketball matchups Saturday in Missoula as Capital and Missoula Sentinel will play boys and girls basketball games back-to-back.
The schools did the same thing in January, with the Bruins winning both games. At the time, the Capital boys handed Sentinel its first loss. Now, heading into play Thursday, the two teams are tied for second at 7-2 in the Western AA.
The third-ranked Bruins (10-3, 7-2) notched a 12-point win over Big Sky in Missoula Tuesday night, but doing the same against fourth-ranked Sentinel and Alex Germer Saturday won't be easy.
The Capital girls, who remained in the top spot of the 406mtsports.com rankings last week, despite a loss last Saturday to Hellgate, dominated Big Sky Tuesday and will look to sweep a Sentinel team the Bruins beat earlier.
The combination of Paige and Dani Bartsch will make things difficult on Deden and Westwater. As a team, Capital also boasts the best scoring defense in Class AA with just 35.5 points allowed per game.
In the standings, the game can't get much bigger. The Bruins currently hold a one game lead over both Sentinel and Hellgate and a loss Saturday in Missoula would create a three-way tie. And if all three teams end up 1-1 against each other, it could make for an interesting tiebreaker.
Either way, the rare Class AA doubleheader should be exciting and it's something Capital boys head coach Guy Almquist would like to see happen more.
"I think they are great and I'd love to see more of them," Almquist said. "It brings in a better crowd and just more excitement. I also think it makes it a little easier on families that might have kids on both. I don't know how doable it is, but it would be great."
The two games in Missoula will start Saturday at 4 p.m.
All stats via mtsportsmemories.com.