Leaving a legacy: Helena basketball team leaves mark in history with first Final Four appearance

Written by Andrew Simonson | Photos by Dawn Harrison

BIRMINGHAM – As the Helena Huskies walked onto the Legacy Arena floor for their first Final Four in program history on Wednesday, Feb. 28, they were greeted by a massive section of traveling supporters who braved rush hour traffic to make noise and cheer on their hometown heroes.

Everyone in the arena knew the journey that Helena has been on. Few expected the Huskies to make it this far, and yet here they were in their first-ever Final Four after never making it past the Sweet 16, standing face-to-face with the defending Class 6A state champions, the Buckhorn Bucks.

While few anticipated this day, even fewer expected Helena to storm out of the gate and dominate the early moments of the game as the Huskies led by 10 midway through the second quarter.

But for coach Lucas McDonald and this Helena team, it was just another chance to shock the state.

“Nobody expected us to be sitting here in the Final Four at the beginning of the year, I guarantee you,” McDonald said. “This group accomplished so much and shocked a lot of people just to have the opportunity to get here, so I’m proud and couldn’t say enough about the kids and what they’ve done over the last two years and bought in and done what I’ve asked and gave us an opportunity to be here.”

While the Huskies fell to the Bucks 60-47, they made the most of that opportunity, throwing their best punch and working hard throughout their battle with the No. 1 team and eventual state champion in 6A.

Helena got to work right from the opening tip as the Huskies won the battle at center court and got the ball to Joseph King for the first basket of the game.

That set the tone for the first quarter as Drew Davis, Josh Williams and Denton McDonald all made baskets as part of a 9-3 run in the first 5:30 of the game.

However, it was Helena’s tenacity on defense that helped it command the early minutes.

The Huskies held the Bucks to just one basket from the field in the entire first quarter as they outrebounded Buckhorn and shut down much of its offense, including its star sophomore Caleb Holt.

Williams made a pair of free throws to close out the first quarter for Helena and extend its lead to 11-4 at the end of the period.

The Bucks cut the Huskies lead to four shortly into the second quarter as Holt made a basket and converted the ensuing free throw.

However, Helena bounced right back with a Williams field goal and Johnigan 3-pointer to extend the lead to nine two minutes into the second.

The senior duo of Williams and Johnigan, who have been with the Huskies for much of their rise over the course of their career, dominated the second quarter as they combined for all 15 of Helena’s points in the period.

On the other end of the floor, Buckhorn flowed its offense through Holt, who had a strong offensive quarter to bounce back from a scoreless first quarter.

However, the Huskies limited much of the scoring threats surrounding him with their continued strong defense and even put Holt in danger of getting into foul trouble with two first half fouls.

The Bucks rode Holt’s offense to cut the deficit to two with less than 10 seconds left, but Johnigan ended the half on an emphatic note with a 3-pointer at the buzzer to electrify the crowd and make the halftime score 26-21.

Helena held that five-point lead through a back-and-forth opening two minutes of the quarter and extended its advantage to nine with 4:46 remaining in the third after Williams and King won a pair of battles at the rim.

However, shortly after, Buckhorn made its move.

In the blink of an eye, the Bucks scored six points in less than a minute, and the Holt dunk that capped off the sequence forced a timeout from McDonald with the Huskies leading by just three with 3:43 left in the third.

Helena responded well coming out of the timeout with a Johnigan field goal and a pair of free throws from King to take the lead to seven, but that was quickly erased as well.

Just more than a minute later, Buckhorn tied up the game with 1:41 left and forced another Helena timeout.

The Huskies had a brief scare a few seconds later as Williams went down with an apparent leg injury, but after spending some time on the floor, he popped up to the delight of the traveling fans and later reentered the game to finish out his final season.

King hit a free throw on the next play to give Helena a 39-38 lead with 1:16 left, but the Bucks took their first lead of the game as time expired as Holt made a Eurostep layup to give him 24 points through three quarters.

Now down 40-39 at the start of the fourth, the Huskies couldn’t keep up with Buckhorn as the top team in the state started to pull away. The Bucks went on a 7-0 run in the opening three minutes of the quarter that was only broken up by a Williams basket with 4:36 left.

Throughout the fourth, Buckhorn shut down Helena possessions by forcing turnovers and capitalizing on the other end of the floor. Much of that offense was powered by Holt, who finished the game with 37 points off 11-20 shooting and 15-19 from the free throw line as he went on to win MaxPreps Player of the Year for the state of Alabama.

While Johnigan, King, Davis and the Huskies made baskets down the stretch, they were unable to close the gap as Buckhorn earned the 13-point win to end Helena’s season.

After the game, Johnigan said he and his teammates knew coming in that the Bucks were a second half team and that whoever won the final 16 minutes would take the game.

“I took this from watching film: they’re a second-half team,” Johnigan said. “I watched them play Clay-Chalkville and Clay-Chalkville was up at half and [Buckhorn] came back and did everything in the second half, so I told my teammates it was going to come down to who was the better second half team, and they were the better second half team.”

Williams agreed with his fellow senior and said he expected everything that Buckhorn did, from playing through Holt to their defense and transition game.

He said he thought the game came down to the turnover battle, which Helena lost 28-13 to give the Bucks 33 points off turnovers out of their 60 total.

“Buckhorn’s a good team, but I didn’t feel like they didn’t do anything that was just outrageous,” Williams said. “It was just our turnovers and all those things that cost us the game.”

Williams finished the game with 17 points, seven rebounds and five steals. Johnigan had 12 points, King had nine points and five rebounds and Davis finished with six points and five boards.

In the end, King and his teammates believe that their performance showed what they already believed coming into the game: that they can battle with anyone and find success when they play their best.

“I feel like we can compete with anybody, it’s just honestly up to what we do,” King said. “I honestly feel like it would have been a different outcome and it’s what we did that cost us. We can play anybody from anywhere and if we play our game, it’s going to be a good game.”

Throughout the postseason, McDonald and his team have been aware of how much they mean to the community and how special this run has been.

The support in the arena was just another reminder of the legacy that they have built and the history that they have made.

Their goal was to cherish every moment during this run knowing that they would remember it for years to come.

“Sometimes, you’re in the middle of it and you don’t really understand it–you don’t see it as a young man,” McDonald said. “I had some of those situations when I was young during my career and this week, I was just going to cherish every moment. And we did that. It didn’t go the way we wanted it to in the second half and shot ourselves in the foot, but as far as this group, this group is a very unique and special group and we’ll hold a special place at Helena High School forever.”

That much was evident on the faces of McDonald, Williams and the Huskies after the game as they entered the postgame press conference. Visibly emotional as they took the stand, it was clear how much being part of this historic team meant to them.

“We’ve never been here,” Williams said. “We look back from the beginning of the season, nobody expected us to be here. Just grateful for everything.”

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