By Bill Foley
HELENA — If effort counted for points, each team would have scored in the hundreds.
Playing as hard as they could, though, was not enough for the Butte High Bulldogs Thursday night. Helena Capital balled out, too, and the Bruins escaped the first round of the Western AA Divisional girls’ basketball tournament with a 28-24 victory at the Carroll College P.E. Center. (Stats)
“It was battle,” Butte High coach Bryan Arntson said. “The kids played super hard.”
Capital (13-6) advances to play Kalispell Flathead in Friday’s 8 p.m. semifinal. Butte High (9-10) will battle Missoula Big Sky (6-13) in a 2 p.m. loser-out game.
Defense was the name of the game for both teams. The Bruins held Butte High to just four points in the first quarter. Capital, though, trailed by four after Butte High pitched a shutout in the first frame.
The Bulldogs, playing an aggressive zone defense, did not allow a single point over the game’s first 10 minutes, 29 seconds.
Butte High led 6-0 before Kayla Almquist grabbed an offensive rebound and put the Bruins on the board with 5 minutes, 31 seconds left in the second quarter.
Bulldog Laura Rosenleaf scored off a Tylar Clary pass to answer. Then Payton Clary scored off a pass by Emmarie Richards to make it a 10-2 game.
Just when it looked like Butte High would finally get going offensively, the Bruins did too. Megan Swanson and Kathryn Emmert hit 3-pointers to jump start Capital.
Butte High took a 13-9 lead into halftime, with the last bucket a fancy reverse layup in traffic by Bulldog Brooke McGrath.
The lead changed hands seven times in the third quarter before the Bruins took a 21-19 lead into the fourth quarter.
Capital started the second half with a 3-pointer an a long 2-pointer from Swanson. The Bruins finished the frame with a baseline 3-pointer by Jada Clarkson.
The game remained 21-19 until Clarkson scored with 2:16 left in the game.
Butte’s Kodie Hoagland hit two free throws to cut the lead to 23-21 before Clarkson scored off a Emmert pass to make it 26-21 with 1:29 left.
“Clarkson is a good player,” Arntson said. “She hit a big shot there at the end. She kind of took over the game late in the fourth quarter, and we really didn’t have an answer.”
Just when the Bulldogs looked dead, Hoagland gave them new life. The senior guard sank a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 26-24 with 15.1 seconds left. Then she tipped the ball to force a Capital turnover.
Butte High’s inbound pass, which came with 10.3 seconds left in the game, though, was tipped by Parklyn Heller to Swanson.
Hoagland again knocked away the ball, this time diving for it to force a jump ball. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, the possession arrow was pointing Capital’s way, and Almquist iced the game with two free throws with :01.7 on the clock.
“We had some chances, which is all you can ask for,” Arntson said. “They played good man to man, and we thought we had a good matchup on the post. We got some good looks in there. We just didn’t convert enough of them.”
Arntson praised his team’s defense.
“They’re a great shooting team,” the coach said of Capital. “We played zone and tried to get out on the shooters. We lost focus a couple of times early in the third quarter and gave them a couple open looks.
“They made some good adjustments to the zone, and they were able to knock a few down, and that changed the game.”
Clarkson finished with 10 points, and Swanson scored nine. Emmert tossed in five for Capital, and Taylor Sawyers joined Almqust with two.
Hoagland’s seven points paced the Bulldogs. Ashley Olson contributed with six points and four rebounds, while Rosenleaf and McGrath each scored four. Rosenleaf grabbed a game-high eight rebounds.
Payton Clary finished with the two, and Tylar Clary scored one.
Richards, Pieper Joseph and Rian Ferriter also contributed for the Bulldogs, whose season will be on the line Friday.
Butte High can still advance to next week’s Class AA State tournament with two loser-out wins. The top four teams move on.
Arntson said the Bulldogs will be ready.
“We’ve got to find a way to recover and refocus ourselves,” he said. “It’s going to be a battle again. One through eight in the Western AA is good.”