A surreal moment: Helena advances to first Final Four in school history

Published 3:18 pm Tuesday, February 20, 2024

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BIRMINGHAM – Trailing by as many as 10 points in the first half and by nine as late as 2:12 left in the second quarter, the Helena Huskies started their first Elite Eight matchup in school history with McAdory admittedly jittery inside Bill Harris Arena on Tuesday, Feb. 20; but once the nerves calmed, so did the deficit.

Trailing by three entering the second half, the Huskies put together a 17-9 run in the third quarter, quickly flipping momentum in their favor with a large student section behind them.

That momentum swing was the final push Helena needed to continue their season of historic firsts as the Huskies outscored McAdory 38-26 in the second half to storm back for a 61-52 win and punch a ticket in the Class 6A Final Four for the first time in school history.

“It’s kind of surreal, it really is,” head coach Lucas McDonald said. “For two years we’ve talked about just get to a regional and anything can happen. Getting here was the key. Once you get here, play well, anything can happen. This is a special group. We talked about it before the game that our journey is not over. Our ride’s not over. We don’t want it to be over. These seasons don’t come along very often and we are excited for the opportunity.”

McDonald said the big difference was how his team responded in the second half, admitting there wasn’t much change in game plan, but more a message of the team focusing on calming the nerves and doing what they had worked on in their game prep.

“First half, we came out and were a little rattled,” he said. “We settled in and settled down. Second half, we guarded better, rebounded better and gave us a chance to win and put together a run. The halftime message was simply to settle down. We’re fine. We’re hurting ourselves. Everything McAdory did, we were prepared for, but we did a much better job in the second half of committing to doing what we know we can do and we guarded much better in the second half. Had to guard better, rebound better and take care of the basketball.”

Early in the game, the Huskies showed their nerves, letting the little things go by the wayside, which led to McAdory jumping out to a quick 14-4 advantage in the opening quarter.

Josh Williams was able to get the final basket of the quarter with 32 seconds left to give the team a bit of a spark and make it 14-6 through one period of play, while Ian Johnigan than made two free throws to start the second quarter.

The Huskies were able to trim the deficit down to five points midway through the second quarter, but McAdory’s height and ball movement to get good looks inside led to a quick run to go back up by nine with 2:12 left in the half.

Helena, however, started to show flashes of strength on the defensive end with strong intensity and rebounding, which led to a strong finish to the half thanks to an 8-2 run that trimmed the deficit down to three points going into the second half.

That’s when Josh Williams and the team’s senior experience took over.

Williams, the team’s leading scorer, had seven first-half points, beat that total in the third quarter alone with 10 points, which was mixed in with baskets from Ian Johnigan and a dunk from Joseph King that got the crowd into it and helped the Huskies build up a 40-35 lead going to the final quarter.

“In the first half, I was jittery,” Williams said. “The halftime speech he had, it calmed my nerves. It helped remind me that I could do it if I just could stop feeling sped up and stayed calm.”

His calmness carried into the final quarter with nine more points, including a stretch of back-to-back 3-pointers with four minutes left that put Helena on top 54-39, all but putting the Yellow Jackets away.

Another King dunk, five points from Johnigan and clutch free throw shooting from Denton McDonald helped the Huskies take a lead as big as 54-37 before holding on for the 61-52 victory to cement a spot in the Final Four.

The win gave Helena redemption after falling to Chilton County in sub-regionals last year, using that game as motivation to drive the success of this year’s team.

“Going into this year, it was different,” Williams said. “This year, we knew we could get past regionals and get through the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, it was just a mindset for us to make it happen.”

Johnigan also credited the crowd for their impact on the game with a large student section in attendance to push them in the second half.

“I’m very grateful for the support we had,” Johnigan said. “It helps a lot. When you make a big play, you can feel the emotion of the crowd. That played a major role in helping us today.”

Williams finished with 26 points and seven rebounds to lead Helena in both categories, while King finished with 12 points and three rebounds and Johnigan totaled 11 points. Denton McDonald finished 8-10 from the free throw line to help ice the game, while he chipped in five assists.

For Johnigan and Williams, the strong performances capped off a regional tournament in which the two combined for 91 points with Williams posting 59 between the two games and Johnigan totaling 32.

The dynamic duo has found a rhythm at the right time, something Lucas McDonald attests to the entire senior class.

“We only go as far as your seniors are going to lead you,” he said. “They don’t want it to be over and that’s evident. They play that way. They’re buying into those little things on both ends because they don’t want it to end. If they do that consistently, they’re going to give themselves a chance.”