Missoula Hellgate’s run to the championship game gave the Knights a unique set of circumstances as the State AA boys’ basketball bracket played out. The Knights would only face teams they’d lost to during the regular season.
Hellgate lost four games during the regular season starting with – in chronological order – Billings Skyview, Billings West and Helena Capital (twice).
In order to win a second straight state title, the Knights needed to beat – again, in order – Skyview, West and Capital.
“We’ve been talking about that,” Hellgate point guard Devin Bray said after the Knights’ semifinal victory over West on Friday, “but all we were doing was taking it one game at a time. You can’t look ahead, but luckily we got to the place where we could battle it out with our rivals, basically, Capital – and hopefully get them for the third check mark.”
The Missoula boys came oh-so close, just missing out on a repeat state championship bid with a 51-47 loss to Capital in Saturday’s title tussle.
Hellgate went 0-4 against those three teams, its four losses by a combined 14 points that featured three overtime periods. Before the State AA tournament’s final site at Billings’ Rimrock Auto Arena and MetraPark, Hellgate had gone 17-0 against every other team.
Skyview started the Knights’ title defense off with a 60-58 loss on Dec. 13 in Billings, a duel in which Falcon Kendal Manuel hit the game winner to break a tie with hardly any time remaining. The next night the Knights fell to 0-2 on the season with an 82-79 double-overtime defeat at West.
The Bruins got the best of Hellgate twice in Western AA league play, a 60-54 final and then a 44-41 game that went to overtime. The losses marked the two lowest-scoring outputs for Hellgate during the regular season.
“Those losses sting, but we learned from them and got better,” Hellgate coach Jeff Hays said.
But Capital was ready to do some avenging of its own. The Knights took out the Bruins in overtime of last year’s finals 58-53.