University of Montana - Western claims national title
Lady Bulldogs wow NAIA tourney to claim 1st title in school history
DILLON—March Madness has officially begun, but while fans were glued to the television watching the selection show for the NCAA’s top 64 basketball teams, maybe they should have been watching the smaller schools duke it out in the NAIA championships.
If they had, they would have seen the stellar wrap-up to the season of the University of Montana Western women’s basketball team. In the NAIA tournament they played against teams from around the nation in Billings last week, capping things off in the sweetest way possible: with the first national championship in school history.
Three other brackets played concurrently, adding 24 more teams to the fray in Billings. Between Friday, March 15 and Tuesday, March 19, 30 games were played and dreams both realized and dashed.
Great Falls’ Providence College fell in a first-round match against Campbellsville University of Campbellsville, Kentucky, on Friday, while the host team, Billings’ Rocky Mountain College, fell in an upset to Shawnee State of Portsmouth, Ohio.
The Carroll College Saints made it farther than those two teams, defeating the University of Pikeville in the first round and moving on to play Oklahoma City University. But the second round would be the end of the road for the Saints, leaving only one Montana team left: the Lady Bulldogs of UM Western.
The Bulldogs, top ranked among the eight teams in their bracket, easily took down No. 8 seed Georgetown College of Kentucky, rolling to an 89-69 win in the opening round on Wednesday, March 13. They led from the first quarter and weren’t outscored until the fourth, when Georgetown offered a minor surge but was unable to make up a 21-point deficit before the buzzer.
Western then moved directly on to the second round on Friday, March 15, where they took on Arkansas’ Lyon College. The Bulldogs came into the tournament ranked No 4. In the NAIA, while Lyon ranked No. 18, and though the margin of victory was a little smaller at 70-58, it was still comfortable. Brianna King, one of Western’s top players all season, led the Bulldogs with 27 points and Britt Cooper, who graduated from Harrison High School in 2015, added 17 more.
The Lady Bulldogs then moved on to face The Master’s University in the quarter-finals, where the margin of the final score became ever-increasingly narrow. After earning a narrow 14-13 lead at the end of the first quarter, UMW held an even 10-10 second quarter before being outscored 21-12 by The Master’s in the third.
Heading into the final period behind 44-36, the Lady Bulldogs kept their cool when it counted, racking up 24 points to the Mustangs’ 11. With a 60-55 win, UMW advanced to the semi-final game. Cooper led the Bulldogs with 14 points.
Cooper has been a standout for the Bulldogs since she arrived her freshman year, having scored 1169 points during her career as a Wildcat as well as 224 steals, 199 blocks, 697 rebounds and 267 assists. In her junior season as a Lady Bulldog she was named to second team all-conference and led the Frontier Conference in rebounds and double-doubles.
That season would also be the first time UMW had ever advanced to the NAIA tournament, where they were knocked out in the semifinal round by Tennessee’s Freed-Hardeman, who then went on to claim the national title.
It was fitting, then, that the lady Bulldogs would have to play Freed-Hardeman again to make it to the national title game.
On Monday evening, March 18, it was a rematch of the game that ended their 2017-2018 season two games short of a national title. And with 40 seconds to go, the Bulldogs were down by six. It looked as if it would be a similar heartbreaking end. By two seconds from the buzzer, Freed-Hardeman still led, 66-63.
Then, Brianna King scored a three-pointer. The game was tied, and now in overtime.
And those extra minutes were all the Bulldogs’ needed. Led by King’s 39 game points and a raucous and roaring home-state crowd in Billings, they outscored Freed-Hardeman 12-7 in overtime, enough for a 78-71 win and redemption for last year’s loss.
And just like that, UMW found itself on the court of its first national title game in school history. The 29-4 Bulldogs would play 32-4 Oklahoma City, their fifth game in six days.
After the nail-biting games on Monday and Tuesday, the Lady Bulldogs made quick work of Oklahoma City in the title game. King led UMW once again with 37 points, while Tori Anderson added 14 and Cooper added nine more.
They outscored the Stars in three of four quarters, notching a 47-29 lead by halftime. After a small rally by Oklahoma City in the third quarter and a close fourth, their final margin of victory was 16 points, 75-59. It was the most comfortable scoring gap they’d seen since their first-round victory against Georgetown College.
After a dream-come-true week of play, three Bulldogs took home top honors for the tournament: King claimed the tournament MVP accolade, while Cooper won the Hustle Award and Anderson was also named to the all-tournament First Team. UMW head coach Lindsay Woolley was named NAIA Coach of the Year.
And now, there will be a new, extra-large trophy gracing the halls of the University of Montana Western. If the Bulldogs’ trajectory over the past three seasons is any indication, there’s more greatness to come in the future.