Long scoreless stretches to open the first and third quarters doomed the Missoula Hellgate girls' basketball team to playing from behind Thursday. That makes for a long uphill trek when shooting just 22 percent.
Great Falls, which started with a 9-0 lead thanks to 4 empty minutes from the Knights right from the tip-off, never trailed but could never pull away either in a 43-36 victory. The Bison never led by more than 11, nor fewer than two.
Despite a lackluster offensive showing for the Knights (0-3), Hellgate's defense had Great Falls fumbling at times, too. Almost into a loss, Bison coach Gregg Dart figured.
"I think the first thing is Hellgate is a much better team than they have been in the past," Dart said. "Had we not gotten off to that great start, it might have been a different story."
It nearly was anyway in the fourth quarter. Hellgate closed a game-high 32-21 gap near the end of the third to seven, and then a sudden shower of 3-pointers had the Bison bench boss feeling the heat of Hellgate's gym.
Darby Henthorn sunk a three 1:30 into the fourth and Katie Stahl and Lexi Duce followed with two more triples in the next few minutes. All of Hellgate's long bombs for the game came in that stretch.
When Henthorn stole an in-bounds pass with a minute to play and Duce hit on a short jumper, the Knights had battled all the way back to 38-36 and had the momentum.
"The ball wasn't going in the hole for us but that all kind of changed, gave us a little energy to help us power through the fourth quarter and try and come back," said Stahl, who co-led Hellgate with Duce at nine points.
"We weren't shooting as well this game, but we knew we've still got to keep shooting it."
The Bison (2-1) wouldn't let Hellgate any closer. Three free throws from Hannah Collins and two more from Gabby Fought closed out the final minute of play.
Collins' nine points trailed only the 10 of Hannah May and Nora Klick's 12 for GFH.
Most of Klick's came in the first half. She added one 3-pointer on Great Falls' first possession after the break and then turned her right ankle on a missed trey a minute later. She sat the rest of the third quarter before returning for limited minutes in the fourth on a patched-up wheel, though she did not score.
Even with Klick off the court, the Knights couldn't make a move for the lead. The Bison held Hellgate at bay behind that opening cushion and the home team's second 4-minute scoreless stretch to start the third quarter.
Hellgate trailed 13-7 after a quarter; Great Falls outscored the Knights by just one the rest of the way, though.
"Maybe credit their defense or maybe we just weren't as focused tonight as we needed to be against a good team," said Hellgate coach Gary McLaughlin, whose team has lost three games so far this season by a combined 11 points.
The Knights get a break now -- both a good thing and a bad one -- with the three losses lingering in their minds. Hellgate won't play again until after New Year's, a Jan. 2 tip-off with Butte on the road.
"They competed and had a chance to win all three games we played before Christmas and I think it'll turn around after the first of the year," McLaughlin said. "We're gonna take about a week off, just think about things, and then we'll be back in here the night after Christmas."
The Western AA opener is the week after that when Hellgate hosts Helena Capital on Jan. 8.