Clinging to a one-point lead with barely a minute remaining in the most important basketball game of the season, the Flathead Braves teetered.
Buckle under pressure? Not these Braves.
Bridger Johnson sank a pair of clutch free throws, Tyler Johnson nabbed a steal and added two more free throws before Sam Elliott sealed the deal with another pair as Flathead defeated Helena 57-50 in Thursday night’s Western AA playoff game at Flathead High School.
Afterward in the locker room, head coach Ross Gustafson asked his battle-tested Braves where they’re going now. The answer was loud and proud — Great Falls.
Riding a six-game win streak, Flathead (12-9) is advancing to next week’s Class AA state tournament. It will be the first state tourney appearance for the program since 2012, when the Braves placed second.
“It means a lot to me because it means a lot to my guys,” Gustafson, in his second year as head coach, said.
“It was always in the back of my mind all year long but we didn’t talk about it. We only looked at one step at a time, and for it to finally be here and to get it in the fashion that we did only makes it sweeter.”
If Flathead seemed unfazed in the final moments of Thursday’s intense match, it’s because these boys are familiar with frenzy. The Braves have played in multiple overtime games and experienced numerous close calls — in fact, the team’s average score differential through 21 games is less than one point.
“We’ve played in a lot of close games. We started the year off with three straight one-point wins. We’ve played in multiple OT games. We’ve had a lot of close games,” Gustafson said. “You can see it with this team – there isn’t a sense of panic.”
Tyler Johnson and Elliott, Flathead’s junior towers, finished with a combined 39 points. Bridger Johnson added eight, Eric Seaman had four and Wyatt Potter netted two.
At the state tournament in Great Falls, Flathead will be either the No. 3 or No. 4 seed from the West.
Glacier (17-3), which earned an automatic bid to state after winning the West, play the No. 4 seed from the East at 5 p.m., March 9.
Glacier 51, Flathead 43
Sometimes the best way to break free from a scoring rut is to shoot your way out. The Wolfpack let it fly on Thursday, led by senior Nikki Krueger, and Glacier tallied its third highest scoring total of the season en route to the Class AA state tournament.
The Glacier girls held off Flathead in a third edition of the season’s crosstown rivalry and returned to the state tournament for the first time since 2015, when the team placed third. The Pack (8-13) play Thursday in Great Falls.
“We’ve had ups and downs throughout the season and the girls have stuck together,” first-year head coach Bill Sullivan said.
“It showed tonight. We wanted to be on the bus to Great Falls.”
Krueger scored 19 and Anna Schrade, Ahna Kreitinger and Kali Gulick each had six as Glacier scored its most points in a game since early February. McKenna Hulslander and Cadie Williams each scored four and Brynn McChesney added three alongside Ellie Stevens.
Tiana Johnson scored 16 points to pace the Bravettes, who end the season at 10-11 overall. Sierra Siblerud scored nine, Kylee Meredith had eight and Kelsey Gillespie added six.
Correction: The story originally stated the Glacier girls are returning to the state tournament for the first time since 2014. The girls played at state in 2015 and placed third.
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