Helena earns dominant win over Northridge to reach first Sweet 16 in five years

Published 9:12 pm Saturday, February 10, 2024

By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

HELENA – As the Helena Huskies lined up to cut down the net after their sub-regional win against Northridge, it was clear looking at coach Lucas McDonald’s eyes how much this victory meant to him and the team.

“I’m so proud of these guys and what we’ve gone through and what we’ve done the last two years,” McDonald said. “These guys deserve this. They deserve the opportunity to go to a regional, and I talked about that a lot in the last two years, so it’s a special moment.”

Helena’s dominant 68-54 victory on Saturday, Feb. 10 at Helena High School punched the Huskies’ ticket to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2019.

After Helena scored the first basket of the game, they never looked back in the wire-to-wire win.

The Huskies struck first with a Denton McDonald three-pointer to kick off a back-and-forth opening stretch.

Helena and Northridge exchanged control of the lead four times during the first quarter.  McDonald put the Huskies in front twice during that stretch after the Jags tied up the game, including a basket with 1:53 left in the first to put Helena up 11-9 and lead for the rest of the half.

That started a run of eight straight unanswered points from the Huskies to cap off a 17-point first quarter, which put them up 17-11 at the end of the quarter.

Northridge briefly threatened to tie the game at the start of the second quarter as it cut the deficit to just two points, but the final five minutes of the half were all Helena.

Ian Johnigan scored with 4:53 left in the quarter to kick off a 15-2 run to end the half. The Huskies closed out the half in dominant fashion thanks to a Joseph King three-pointer and two threes from Johnigan to put them up 33-18 going into halftime.

Helena continued its hot shooting form with six points in the opening minute of the third quarter and extended its lead to 19.

However, Northridge scored on back-to-back possessions to start its best quarter of the game.

The Jags dropped 21 points in the third quarter while keeping the Huskies quiet from the field.

Seven of Helena’s 15 third-quarter points came from free throws as the Northridge defense forced it to the foul line throughout the quarter.

By the end of the quarter, the Jags had drawn within single-digits after slashing Helena’s lead to 48-39 to put the pressure on the hosts.

That was before Johnigan hit two three-pointers in the first 28 seconds of the quarter to send the crowd into a frenzy and force a Northridge timeout.

With their double-digit lead restored, the Huskies started to pull away for the win. Drew Davis, Josh Williams and Torrey Ward found the bottom of the net as their team opened up an 18-point lead with 4:35 left.

While the Jags scored five straight points shortly after, Johnigan capped off his massive night with a pair of field goals to keep Helena firmly in front and put the finishing touches on the 14-point win and a ticket to regionals.

After the game, McDonald said the key to winning was doing the little things right to build towards a complete performance.

“It’s little details that people don’t want to do that make the difference, and whoever came out here tonight and did the little things consistently would have that opportunity to do what others can’t next week,” McDonald said. “That’s all we focused on was little stuff, and it showed tonight.”

In the final home game of his career, Johnigan scored 20 points, including four three-pointers, in a dominant showing for the senior. Joining him in double-figures were Davis with 13 points and McDonald with 12 points.

In addition, Josh Williams had eight points, King scored seven points and Ward added four points in the victory.

McDonald spoke about the journey that the team has been on to reach the regionals for the first time in five years.

“Before I got here, I don’t know if they realized they could do it,” McDonald said. “And it’s not me. It has nothing to do with me. It has to do with them buying into what we do on a day-to-day basis. I can’t say enough. I’m just so proud of them.”

The Huskies will now move on to the Central Regional for their Sweet 16 game at Bill Harris Arena in Birmingham on Thursday, Feb. 15.