Daily Inter Lake – Evan McCullers


Flathead and Glacier enter today’s first round of the Western AA boys divisional basketball tournament in Helena on opposite trajectories.

The Braves, who will face Helena at 8 p.m., are winners of three straight.

Meanwhile, the Wolfpack, which will square off with Helena Capital at 5 p.m., has dropped three in a row. Two of those games were heartbreaking, one-possession defeats against Flathead and Western AA champion Missoula Sentinel.

But while their records may be starkly different over the past two weeks, the two crosstown rivals enter the inaugural divisional tournament with a common goal.

“By the time this tournament comes,” Glacier head coach Mark Harkins said, “we want to play our best basketball.”

Given its strong finish to the season, Flathead head coach Ross Gustafson believes his team is in prime position to do just that.

After an 18-point win at Missoula Big Sky, the Braves (12-6, 8-4 Western AA) closed the season with hard-fought victories over Glacier and Sentinel.

“We’re definitely playing some of our best basketball this season,” Gustafson said. “But I feel like if we’re going to be successful, we’ve still got to continue to get better and better.

“I don’t get the sense that we’re overconfident by any means, but it does at least give us the confidence that we can go play well.”

Flathead split with Helena (5-13, 3-9 Western AA) in the regular season, winning 53-41 at home and dropping a 52-50 contest on the road.

The main difference in the two matchups, Gustafson said, was the pace of play.

“When we played them up here the first time, we got the pace moving a little quicker,” he said. “Down there, they definitely slowed us down quite a bit offensively.

“We’re going to try to get it going a little bit more.”

Gustafson also noticed a lack of “effort, execution (and) focus” from his team in its loss to the Bengals, a contributing factor to Helena’s success behind the 3-point line.

Behind big performances from Connor Murgel and Alex Johnson, the Bengals made 10 3-pointers in the game, almost double their season average, in the two-point victory.

“I’ve got stars next to Murgel and Johnson on the scouting board,” Gustafson said.

Glacier (8-10, 6-6 Western AA) swept its regular-season series with Helena Capital, eking out a close win at home before routing the Bruins on the road.

“I think it was an anomaly,” Harkins said of the second matchup. “Not that we played amazing, but I thought they played pretty poorly. We need to recognize they’re a lot better team than they showed.”

Noting its tight games against both Flathead and Sentinel, Harkins was adamant Capital (6-12, 5-7 Western AA) will not be taken lightly, even considering Glacier’s success in the prior two meetings.

The Wolfpack is not at full strength entering the tournament, as several players are dealing with coughs and colds. But Harkins insisted his team’s health would not affect its performance, noting that “we’re not unique by any means” in being short of 100 percent.

“We’ve got to refocus,” Harkins said. “Everybody’s 0-0. The records now don’t really mean anything anymore. We’re just all starting over.”

Glacier, which kicks off postseason play with its eyes on a second straight state appearance after winning the Class AA crown a year ago, would set up a showdown with Sentinel at 6:30 p.m. Friday with a first-round win.

Flathead, which also has its sights set on a state appearance, would play the winner of Missoula Hellgate vs. Missoula Big Sky at 8 p.m. Friday with a win over Helena. In case of a loss, the Braves would face the loser of that game in a loser-out matchup at 5 p.m. Friday.

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