The journey continues: Helena beats Benjamin Russell to reach first Elite Eight as Williams, Johnigan lead solid team effort

Published 6:54 pm Thursday, February 15, 2024

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By ANDREW SIMONSON | Sports Editor

BIRMINGHAM – The Helena Huskies were locked in a battle for much of their Sweet 16 game against the Benjamin Russell Wildcats, and when they needed it the most, two of Helena’s seniors who have been along for the entire journey helped carry them to history.

Josh Williams and Ian Johnigan stepped up down the stretch with key baskets to lead a great team effort on both ends of the floor, as Williams scored 33 points and Johnigan had 21 points and went 10-10 on free throws.

That gave Helena the performance it needed to build out a lead and maintain it until the end. The Huskies walked away with the 70-65 win over Benjamin Russell on Thursday, Feb. 15 at Bill Harris Arena to secure the first Elite Eight appearance in school history.

“These guys have worked extremely hard throughout the course of the year to give themselves this opportunity,” Helena coach Lucas McDonald said. “We talked last week, and I don’t know that they realized they could get to a regional, and I’ve talked about it a lot with these guys that once you get to a regional, anything can happen, and we have a great opportunity now moving forward on Tuesday to do something unimaginable maybe at the beginning of the year to these guys and that’s a special moment and we’re excited for that opportunity.”

Before Helena was in position for the win, the game was a back-and-forth war from the opening whistle.

After the Huskies opened the game with a 4-2 lead, Benjamin Russell scored five straight points to take the lead. That wouldn’t last long as Johnigan and Williams each hit a 3-pointer to regain the 10-7 lead.

The Wildcats clawed back to close the quarter with two straight field goals to take a 11-10 lead at the end of the first, and they extended it with a three in the opening minute of the second.

Benjamin Russell led for much of the quarter, but that didn’t mean Helena went away altogether.

Williams had eight points in the second to complement points from Johnigan and Joseph King, and that led to the Huskies retaking a 22-21 lead with 3:19 left in the half.

Benjamin Russell gained the lead with 1:12 remaining and briefly extended it to three. However, Denton McDonald scored with 35 seconds left to cut the deficit to one going into halftime.

Helena tied up the game early in the third and took a two-possession lead. That was quickly erased with two quick baskets from the Wildcats to tie up the game at 33 with 5:27 left in the third.

Johnigan hit a three to retake the lead, and after Benjamin Russell answered with a three of its own to go back in front, he nailed another deep ball take it right back.

Shortly after, Williams pulled up from near his own bench to sink a long-range three and regain a four-point lead for his team.

The Wildcats’ Malcolm Simmons tied up the game less than a minute later on a dunk, but Johnigan scored four straight points to keep the Huskies in front.

Williams then hit another 3-pointer with just two seconds left to go up 49-42 at the end of the third and send the Helena crowd into a frenzy.

Only he wasn’t done. He scored five more points in the opening minute of the fourth to make it a 12-0 run and give the Huskies a double-digit lead.

However, Benjamin Russell wouldn’t go away quietly and put the pressure on Helena the rest of the way.

The Wildcats went on a 7-0 run to cut the deficit to five, but Johnigan hit four free throws and Drew Davis scored to put their team up nine with 3:24 to go.

While the Huskies continued to make their free throws to maintain their lead, Benjamin Russell pulled back within five with a pair of free throws and a layup off a steal and forced a timeout.

Williams scored at the other end of the floor, but the Wildcats kept threatening. First, they cut the lead to four. Then, after Helena made a free throw to take it back to five, it was down to three with just 22.5 seconds left.

McDonald hit another pair of free throws to restore the five-point lead, but Simmons scored with 11.1 seconds left to put the pressure right back on them.

However, coming out of the timeout, Benjamin Russell quickly fouled Johnigan, who hadn’t missed from the line at all in the game.

He made his ninth and 10th free throws of the night to ice the game and send the Huskies to their first Elite Eight.

After the game, McDonald credited his team’s composure down the stretch and said it was a sign of growth from earlier in the season.

He believes his team’s tough schedule and collective buy-in made the win possible.

“Earlier in the year, we got in situations like that, we kind of freaked out a little bit, and we’ve been so much better here in the last month and a half really of closing out games and having more composure, being better composed for the most part,” McDonald said. “We’ve had lots of games, we played a fairly challenging schedule that we had to have composure late in games and finish games out and we’ve been able to do that. We did it in area, we did it in the Northridge game on Saturday in our sub-region game. We’ve just been slowly building towards that.”

Everyone around the Huskies knows that it’s also been a long build for this program to get to the Elite Eight, including Johnigan who has been with the team for so long.

“I think it’s been a lot longer than just this year,” Johnigan said. “I came here in sophomore year, and me and Josh kind of butted heads. But now that we’ve spent two years together and gone through a new coaching staff, and then obviously contributions from [McDonald] of getting us together and team dinners, making sure that we have that respect when one of us makes a mistake that the other one can be there to say, ‘You’re good, next play.’ I think that it’s definitely been a lot longer than just this year and I’m proud of everybody.”

While a massive date with McAdory looms on Tuesday, Feb. 20 at 10:45 a.m. at Bill Harris Arena, McDonald wants both his players and himself to cherish this ride.

“Early on in my career, I’ve had some opportunities and wins coaching college, junior college level, we got the regional finals, one game away from the national tournament and some things like that. And I didn’t really enjoy the moment as much, and I told myself throughout the course of this year, ‘I’m going to enjoy this, I’m going to enjoy every win.’

“Obviously as a coach, there’s always things I want to get better and we need to get better at. I’ve talked a lot about this with the guys, about the journey and the memories that we’re making, and this is special, and to have the opportunity to do this, no other team in Helena history has had this opportunity before and that’s a great thing and it’s a special thing and we need to enjoy it.”

But even though they have already made history, Williams and the team is hungry for more.

“It feels pretty good, but I just want to say we aren’t done yet,” Williams said.