"Winnable" is a lousy label to hang on a game.
It means you lost, which is what the Missoula Hellgate boys did Saturday.
The Knights bowed at home to Great Falls High 56-54 in a non-conference Class AA basketball struggle that resembled baseball - long stretches of languor spiked by fits of passion.
Great Falls (5-9) broke a five-game losing streak that was topped off Friday with a 25-point defeat at home to top-ranked Missoula Sentinel. Hellgate's bid for a three-win week, highlighted by a seven-point conference win over Helena High on Thursday, went by the wayside. The Knights fell to 7-8.
"We weren't ready to play and they were," moaned Knights coach Jim Sampson after the rare 4:30 p.m. tipoff. "They came out and played hard, played smart and played good."
Bison freshman Bob Howard swooped in to score on a putback with 1:08 remaining, hit one of three free throws after that, and snatched the defensive rebound after Hellgate's best last shot to win with 11 seconds left.
Howard's flurry counterbalanced Hellgate junior Jack McGillis' inspired third quarter , when he scored 11 of his 18 points. And it came on the heels of Bison senior Josh Saunders' hostile takeover midway through the fourth quarter, when he scored six straight points to break a 47-47 tie.
Saunders, still feeling the effects of a flu-like bug that has dogged him for the past week and a half, led all scorers with 23 points and tied Howard for game rebounding honors with seven.
"I'm kind of glad we had to made the trip," said first-year Great Falls coach Bob Howard, father of the promising Bison forward. "I know Hellgate's tough at home, but we needed a change of scenery, and I think we responded pretty well."
The young Howard is one of two freshmen his father brings off the bench. Guard Shaun Tatarka had five points, and the 6-foot-3 Howard scored 11 to go with his seven boards.
Hellgate hovered within a point late in the game when Howard dished to Tatarka from the wing to the corner, then crashed to the basket as Tatarka launched a jumper. Howard made it to the hoop in time to corral the missed shot and put it back in for a 55-52 lead at the 1:08 mark.
McGillis quickly countered inside to make it 55-54 with 50 seconds left. After an exchange of turnovers, Hellgate committed three straight fouls to get the Bison into a bonus situation. Howard missed the front of a one-and-one with 23 seconds left.
Hellgate's Charlie Cox, who finished with 16 points, snagged the long rebound and brought the ball down. Great Falls defenders closed on him, and Cox dished to Kyle Shafer on the left side. Shafer took a dribble and pulled up for a 14-footer from the baseline that curled out with 11 seconds left. Howard rebounded and was fouled.
The freshman made the first of two free throws with 7.4 seconds remaining. McGillis rebounded the second and passed to Cox, whose shot from 15 feet sailed wide right as time expired.
The miss averted an overtime that historians of the series might have expected. The last three times the Knights and Bison met, Hellgate won in overtime - in 2000, 2001 and last season in Great Falls.
"We really didn't get into what we needed to on the last shot because we were slow getting down the court. We didn't push it hard enough," Sampson said. "But we got looks. Any time you get a 15-foot look it's probably as good as you're going to get. We just shouldn't be in that situation."
McGillis had just two points in the first half for Hellgate when he found himself with the ball on the right elbow in the closing seconds. As fans implored him to shoot, McGillis momentarily lost the handle, caught the ball on his hip, then fired it up as the buzzer sounded.
The swished 3-pointer gave the Knights a 24-22 lead at intermission. The lethargic first half gave way to a third quarter remarkable in that each team nearly doubled its score (Great Falls outscored Hellgate 21-18) and every basket resulted in either a tie, a tie-breaker or a lead change. That streak continued until the second of Saunders' three straight hoops in the fourth quarter. In all, it lasted through more than 14 game minutes and included 28 straight buckets or sets of free throws.
McGillis shoved in an underhand shot while being fouled early in the third quarter. The next time down he missed a shot inside as hometown fans cried foul. McGillis promptly stole the ball from Saunders at the other end and went in for a one-handed jam. The junior hit Hellgate's next two buckets as well, and he closed his big quarter with a three-point play.
"He was better than I thought he'd be," said Howard, the coach. "I mean, I know his stats are pretty good, but geez, he's a nice player."
Cox was perfect on eight attempts from the free-throw line but the junior guard had an off day shooting. He came up empty on four 3-point tries and finished 4-for-13 from the field. Brian Gaul had two of Hellgate's four treys and finished with nine points.
The Knights stay in Missoula next week. They host defending state champ Bozeman on Friday night before traveling to Big Sky on Saturday in hopes of avenging a one-point loss to the Eagles in December.
Great Falls High 11 11 21 13 - 56
Hellgate 14 10 18 12 - 54
GREAT FALLS - Josh Saunders 8-11 4-4 23, Tyler Bolton 0-4 0-0 0, Dan Mathes 3-5 0-1 6, Brian Bollwit 2-4 0-0 4, Tyler Corwin 1-2 0-0 2, Shaun Tatarka 1-4 2-2 5, Bob Howard 5-11 1-3 11, Bill Siddoway 2-2 0-1 4, Chad Fowler 0-0 1-2 1. Totals 22-43 8-13 56.
HELLGATE - Jack McGillis 8-13 1-2 18, Brian Gaul 3-9 1-3 9, Matt Barnes 1-1 0-0 2, Matt Guffey 1-4 0-0 2, Charlie Cox 4-13 8-8 16, Conner Van Fossen 1-3 0-0 3, Kyle Shafer 1-5 0-0 2, Derek Moderie 0-0 0-0 0, Nick Martin 0-0 2-2 2. Totals 19-48 12-15 54.
3-point goals - Great Falls 4-10 (Saunders 3-4, Tatraka 1-3, Howard 0-2, Corwin 0-1), Hellgate 4-20 (Gaul 2-7, Van Fossen 1-3, McGillis 1-4, Guffey 0-2, Cox 0-4). Fouls - Great Falls 16, Hellgate 14. Fouled out - None. Rebounds - Great Falls 33 (Saunders 7, Howard 7, Mathes 6), Hellgate 29 (McGillis 6, Shafer 6). Turnovers - Great Falls 13, Hellgate 14.