BUTTE — Butte basketball coach Luke Powers looked over at his bench early in the game and mused "Do you think we're nervous?"
Perhaps they were, and the Bulldogs seemed to shake it off but couldn't rally against Helena and its stubborn defense.
Led by a game-high 18-point performance from Connor Murgel — including a trio of 3-pointers — the Bengals raced to a 14-point halftime lead and then held off Butte for a 63-52 win in the season opener for both Class AA teams at the Butte Civic Center on Tuesday evening.
Pierce Brown added 11 points for Helena and Caleb Ferguson added 10 to round out the Bengal's double digit scorers.
Trevyn Roth led the Bulldogs with 16 points including a game-high five 3-pointers. Kash Kelly added 13 points and went 8-for-8 from the free throw line.
For Helena, it was an all-around solid performance as the Bengals were able to find a bounty of scoring opportunities in the paint and connected on a total of seven 3-point shots. On defense, Helena shut down the Bulldogs in the paint and frequently stripped away balls from Butte players who ventured into the post.
“Defensively we were pretty solid up front," said Helena coach Brandon Day. "We did a good job of keeping people out of the paint and offensively we're athletic and can get to the basket. We're not real big but we use our quickness."
Bengals senior Dawson Tedesco delivered the game's most thrilling defensive play, chasing down Roth who was barreling towards the basket on a fast break and knocking the ball away as Roth went up for what otherwise would have been an easy layup.
The Bulldogs found some rhythm and outscored Helena 34-33 in the second half but couldn't close the gap. Butte coach Luke Powers knew his team's slow start made the difference.
"We played nervous all game, and if we started a little different the game's probably completely different," said Powers. "I have to have them better prepared and we have to calm down. We were playing nervous when they made us play fast."
Lack of experience was also an issue.
"This is a team with one senior who has never played varsity basketball and a bunch of juniors who haven’t played varsity basketball," said Powers of his team which has one senior in forward Lathan Ricketts. "We looked like a young basketball team and, quite, frankly that’s what we are.”
The Bengals struck first with a 5-0 run to open the game before Butte answered back to tie the game.
Helena began to flex its muscle in the second quarter, particularly in the paint, as the Bengals either found creases or created lanes to the basketball while scuttling the Bulldogs' attempts to do the same.
The Bengals halftime lead proved to be enough.
Powers knew that the bulk of his team's scoring power would come from beyond the arc and, true to his prediction, a hefty amount of the Bulldogs' shots came from 3-point range. But only Roth developed a hot hand, as the Bulldogs' only other 3-pointer came from Kelly in the third quarter.
The Bulldogs are in need of a threat in the post.
“We didn’t find the answer in post, we haven’t found that yet," said Powers, whose team will face their first road test of the season against Big Sky on Tuesday. "I have to find a way to get these guys some easy baskets."
For Day, his team will look to shore up ball security as they prepare to host Bozeman on Saturday.
"We just need to make sure that we take care of the ball on every possession and keep improving as a team," said Day.
Helena 65, Butte 30
Paced by a 14-point performance from Jamie Pickens, the Helena girls' team cruised past Butte 65-30 in the first game of the season for both teams.
Nine players scored for Helena with Payton Aasved notching 14 points. The Bulldogs were led by Ally Cleverly with 11 points and Brittney Tierney with 10.