HELENA -- It's hard to predict what will happen down the road. But after watching Helena Capital and Missoula Hellgate duke it out Saturday, it's safe to say each is among the top teams in Class AA girls basketball.
And in what could be the first of a few meetings this season, Capital came out on top in the battle of 5-0 teams, as the second-ranked Bruins downed top-ranked Hellgate, 51-45 in the Bears Den in Helena.
The victory should push Capital (6-0, 2-0) into the top spot of the 406mtsports.com rankings this week and also provides a measure of revenge for the Bruins, who lost to the Knights (5-1, 1-1) in the AA third-place game last season.
"It means a lot," Capital's Dani Bartsch said. "It's a little bit of payback for last year's 3-4 state game. I don't want to feel that feeling again and for us to come out and play as hard as we did, it felt great to get the W."
Bartsch certainly played a big role in the win and she did so right from the start.
The Lady Griz commit opened the game with an elbow jumper. Then after the Bruins fell behind 3-2, she engineered a 5-0 run with a bucket and an assist to Mashayla O'Malley for a 3-point play.
Bartsch, who scored 12 points in the first half, added another jumper before hitting Mara McGinley for an open three that helped Capital take a 17-9 at the end of the first quarter.
In the second, Bartsch scored again quickly and then dished off to her sister, Paige Bartsch for two, soon after, giving Capital a double-digit lead at 23-12.
But, Addy Heaphy hit from deep, one of five first-half 3's for Hellgate, which helped the Knights get back within three, before McKinlee Mihelish hit a late three, late in the stanza, to make it 31-25 Capital at the half.
The late triple by Mihelish capped an extremely efficient first half for Capital that saw the Bruins score 1.35 points per possession.
"They came out and shot the ball really well," Missoula Hellgate head coach Rob Henthorn said. "We had a couple of let downs but the girls gave it 110 percent and credit to Capital, they played good and they played hard."
"I think different players hitting shots was huge," Capital head coach Katie Garcin-Forba said. "We had Audrey Hofer hit a big three and McKinlee Mihelish hit a big three and that's really hard to guard when you have different players that can make plays."
At the outset of the second half, McGinley added her name to the list of playmakers.
With a 12-point lead shrunk to six, McGinley and the Bruins quickly seized control again as the junior drilled two clutch 3-pointers from the same corner. That extended the advantage to 12 and moments later, it was 14 after a make from Dani Bartsch capped an 8-0 spurt to open the third.
"We just did a good job executing with the ball," McGinley said. "We knew the gaps that they had and we tried to expose that."
Henthorn also lamented his team giving up two quicks treys which put them behind the 8-ball again.
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"We knew the corner was going to be open," He said. "We talked about defending it and they got to it after half and hit two threes and we had to fight our way back."
Fight back Hellgate did. Heaphy hit again from deep and two hoops from Bailey Sayler helped the Knights enter the fourth on an 11-4 run that made it 45-38 Capital.
Hellgate kept pushing in the final stanza. Sayler scored on a take and then Heaphy hit for two, trimming the Bruin lead to 45-42 with just over four minutes left.
The Capital offense had gone cold and the pressure being applied by Hellgate had something to do with it.
Yet, a jumper from Mihelish pushed the lead back to five and with 2:46 to go, the Knights made the mistake of leaving McGinley open in the corner again.
The junior buried her fourth 3-pointer of the game and it proved to be the final dagger in a 51-45 win.
"It was a great win," McGinley said. "You never know when it's No. 1 vs No. 2. But it was a really good game and I thought we handled their pressure well and stay composed."
That proved to be true if you look at the turnovers. Capital had only 10, while the Knights finished with 16. Part of that was due to Dani Bartsch, who finished with 14 points, eight rebounds and four steals, as well as three assists.
"I just tried to play with a lot of energy," Bartsch said. "But it was probably more about confidence. I didn't have a lot of confidence early in the season, but I have been playing better and feeling better shooting the ball."
McGinley, who hit five 3's in the win over Butte Tuesday, made four to finish with 12 points Saturday. Mihelish also added eight. Sayler led all scorers in the game with 15 for Hellgate; Heaphy ended up with 15 and four 3-point field goals of her own.
The two teams will meet again Feb 8. in Missoula. But that might not be the end of it.
"I told coach, I want to see you again and again and again," Henthorn said referring to divisionals and state. "That's what it's all about. There are good girls on both sides, they get along with each other and that makes it fun."
Capital (6-0) also has to avoid resting on its laurels following a win, even as its poised to be ranked No. 1.
"These girls have that experience from volleyball and they know how to handle having a target on their back," Garcin-Forba said. "We don't talk a lot about standings and rankings and everything. We just talk about the next team up, but I think they have a lot of mental toughness."
Coaches may not care about rankings, but that doesn't mean being No. 1 is meaningless.
"Very excited," Bartsch said about potentially being No. 1. "We'll own it."