There are few things I love more than high school basketball season. For one, I love basketball and two, it's indoors, which as I've gotten older has made me appreciate the game more.
I don't like the cold, just as coaches and players don't like losing. Winning makes the game more fun and the past two games have certainly been more enjoyable for the Helena High boys basketball team.
The Bengals didn't win any games during the 2020-21 season but starting in late December, they started busting some streaks. The first was a 21-game losing streak. That went down when the Bengals rallied past Belgrade for a nonconference win on the road.
And while last week's game against Missoula Big Sky was postponed, Helena had a shot to snap two other losing streaks last Saturday vs Missoula Hellgate and did the Bengals ever make it count.
Trailing by five points late in the fourth quarter, Helena High rallied, forced overtime and knocked off Hellgate inside the Jungle last Saturday in the Bengals first win over the Knights since 2011 as well as the first win in the Western AA in 18 tries.
"It's huge for the guys," Helena High head coach Brandon Day said. "This group of guys was not solely responsible for last season's outcomes and it's big for them to come out and show they are a different team. They are here to compete; they play hard from the opening tip until the final buzzer and I'm excited to be part of their season."
There are a number of reasons for Helena's back-to-back wins, each that required a fourth-quarter rally. But one constant has been the scoring of Kaden Huot, who combined for 50 points in the two games, including a 31-point outburst against Hellgate that featured five 3-pointers.
"A big part of it is that Kaden is trusting in his teammates and his teammates are trusting him," Day said. "I think he's starting to come around and feel comfortable within the offense and hopefully that continues. It's not an expectation for him to have 31 points every night...it would be nice. But I also think it can draw some attention and open up opportunities for some of the other guys as well."
Two guys who have shown they can take advantage of those opportunities are Colter Petre and Cael Murgel. Petre is averaging 9.8 points per game and shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc but does more than shoot.
"He just loves to compete," Day said of Petre. "And I love that about him."
Murgel has upped his average to 8.6 per game and his defense has also been improved. Against Missoula Hellgate he limited big man Griffin Kinch to 10 points, six below his normal average.
Helena's defense as a whole has improved since the start of the season. In the first three games, all losses, Helena allowed each team to score more than 60 but held Hellgate and Belgrade to 54 or less.
"Over the break and the last few weeks," Day said. "We have been hitting the defense pretty hard and it showed some in that Hellgate game. The boys played hard and again, this group of guys, they are starting to gel a little bit and hopefully it continues and they get better as we go. We just need to make sure that each week, we get a little better."
The next challenge for the Bengals comes this weekend with back-to-back home games against Western AA opponents Kalispell Flathead and Glacier.
Flathead (0-6, 0-2) has been without Joston Cripe, its leading scorer from last season and in just two games in 2021-22, he's averaged 17 per game.
The Braves and Bengals will play at 7 p.m. inside the Jungle, while Glacier will take on Capital at the Bears Den at the same time.
Glacier (2-3, 1-1) will also play Helena High on Saturday at 2 p.m. and if the Bengals can conquer the Wolfpack, as well as the Braves, they would find themselves sitting at 3-0 in the Western AA.
"Any wins are going to be big for us," Day said. "But it's huge to win your home games. We are going to have a tough second half of the season with a lot of road trips. Getting these two games at home would set us up nicely looking towards the rest of the season and we are really looking forward to it."
For top-ranked Helena Capital, the same opportunity exists. The Bruins improved to 5-0 overall and 1-0 in conference play thanks to Brayden Koch's buzzer-beating tip-in last Saturday against Big Sky and this weekend the Bruins will be back in the Bears Den twice.
And with the crosstown games looming next week, if the Bengals and Bruins each hold serve this weekend, the stakes will be even higher next Friday when CHS and HHS will meet for the first time this season.
Bruin, Bengal girls hit the road
Last week was less than ideal for the Capital and Helena girls basketball teams as both had one game postponed before losing on the road last Saturday to Missoula Big Sky and Hellgate respectively.
This weekend, with the boys teams in Helena, both girls teams will be in Kalispell as the Bengals will take on Flathead Friday and Glacier Saturday. Capital will have the opposite schedule. The games on Friday will start at 7 p.m. and 2 p.m. on Saturday.
Another thing that awaits both teams is undefeated Flathead (6-0, 2-0) which joins Hellgate and Billings West as the final undefeated teams in Class AA. Capital (3-2, 0-1) and Helena High (3-2, 0-1) will have their work cut out for them as Flathead is fourth in scoring margin and Glacier is fifth, despite being 0-2 in the Western AA.
A big reason for Flathead's success this season has been Kennedy Moore — the only player in Class AA to average a double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds per game.
However, the Bengals boast Alex Bullock who is fifth in the state in rebounding (9.7) and is just short of averaging a double-double of her own with 10 points a game to her credit, a number matched by Avery Kraft.
For its part, Capital will bring two of the top 11 scorers in Class AA to Kalispell in Jada Clarkson (13 ppg) and Megan Swanson (12 ppg).
Other games in the area this weekend
Both East Helena teams were in Hamilton on Tuesday night and both of them will be in Three Forks on Saturday (4/5:30 pm).
Hamilton is the third-ranked team (Class A boys) in the 406mtsports.com rankings this week and things won't get easier on Saturday when East Helena (2-6, 1-5) will take on the undefeated Three Forks, which is currently second in Class B. Kaeden Sager and his 15.5 scoring average will lead the way for the Vigilantes along with Kobe Mergenthaler who is scoring 10.8 points and bringing down eight rebounds per game.
The Vigilante girls (1-7, 0-5) will also be in Three Forks Saturday and will look for its first-ever road win behind the stellar play of Dymon Root who is averaging team-highs in points (14.8) and rebounds (6.4).
Townsend and Jefferson will play Saturday in a Southern B Clash that will feature boys and girls games at 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. at Broadwater High School.
Townsend will also be in action, on the road, against Manhattan Friday night. The girls will tip-off at 4:30 and the boys at 6.
On the mats, the state wrestling tournament is quickly approaching and one of the best tournaments in the lead up to that, as well as one of the best tournaments in the entire Northwest, is this weekend's Jug Beck Rocky Mountain Classic this weekend in Missoula.
Helena Capital took fifth last weekend at the Tom LeProwse in Bozeman thanks to individual titles from Carson DesRosier (138) and Talon Marsh (285). DesRosier will be looking to add another prestigious title his resume and Marsh will be looking to join him.
Both are ranked No. 1 in Class AA in their respective weight classes but will be squaring off against wrestlers from not just Montana, but also Wyoming, Washington and Idaho.
The action starts on Friday. Townsend and Jefferson will each take part in the Choteau Invitational this weekend.