Lady Dawgs fall to Westmont in second round of NAIA National Tourney

By 
M.P. Regan
Wednesday, March 17, 2021
Up and out

University of Montana Western’s Lily Gopher goes airborne attempting to stop an opponent from scoring during her Bulldogs’ season-ending loss to Westmont College on Saturday in the second round of the NAIA national tourney. Lewis-Clark State photo

You never know quite what you’ll find at the NAIA women’s national basketball tourney, a competition that pits teams from all over the country against one another that usually haven’t gone head to head in years—or maybe ever.

And you never know what will find you there.

Even if you’re the defending national champs.

In its two games at this year’s NAIA tourney, the University of Montana Western women’s basketball team found its biggest triumph of the year, and then 24 hours later its most lopsided defeat of the 2020-21 season, which ended with that loss.

The Bulldogs looked every bit of the part of defending national champs in sailing to an 81-36 win over Benedictine University at Mesa on Friday afternoon.

Then on Saturday, the Western women got swept away by a trey-luge of 3-pointers in a 97-62 loss to Westmont College.

Those results knocked Montana Western out of the singleelimination tourney and left Westmont as the sole survivor of the three-team pod that met last weekend in Lewiston, ID, to determine which of the trio would advance from the opening weekend qualifiers to the Final 4 x 4 stage of this year’s 48-team NAIA tourney set to continue with games involving the surviving 16 teams March 18–24 in Iowa.

“We tried to make some adjustments during the Westmont game,” said Woolley, who got named the NAIA Women’s Basketball Coach of the Year in 2019 shortly after leading Montana Western to the national tourney title that spring.

“But if you look at the scoreboard, you can see nothing really worked,” added Woolley, whose halftime adjustments over the years have helped rally the Bulldogs to numerous second-half surges, even ones dramatic enough to overcome deficits as large as the 18-point one his Bulldogs faced after the first half against Westmont on Saturday.

“I would have liked a little more prep time to figure out something more we could do to try to stop them,” said Woolley, noting that his Bulldogs had to play their opening round game at noon Friday, and then turn around for a noon tip off on Saturday against a well-rested Westmont, recipient of a firstround bye.

“But I’m not sure it would have mattered,” conceded Woolley of the difficulties of preparing for the Golden State Athletic Conference West Division winner that came into the tourney ranked no. 4 in the entire NAIA.

“We knew they were pretty good, and we gave them too many open looks, and then they all got hot,” said Woolley of Westmont’s players, who bulls-eyed almost half (21 of 44) of their efforts from beyond the arc against Western while setting a new NAIA tourney record for most 3-pointers made in a single game.

“They are one of the top teams in the country for a reason. They are the most athletic team we have seen all year, far and away. And they are well coached and experienced, plus a lot of other good things,” said Woolley, who became UMW’s head coach in 2012 and then led the team from the bottom of the Frontier Conference to the top of the entire NAIA.

The Bulldogs looked all those things in their first round tourney game on Friday, when they used their swarming defense and balanced offensive attack to overwhelm Benedictine University at Mesa, 81-36.

Brynley Fitzgerald scored 21 points to lead a balanced Bulldog scoring attack that also got double-digit point contributions from Jenni Weber (13 points), as well as Shainy Mack and Paige Holmes, who each notched 14.

On the defensive end, UMW held Benedictine Mesa’s entire team to just single-digit scoring in the game’s first three periods while building an insurmountable lead.

“It’s a tournament, so its matchup-based. So, if you get a good matchup and you play well, you can win big. And if you get a bad matchup and you don’t play so well, you can get blown out,” said Woolley of a see saw his team rode to both extremes at this year’s NAIA tourney, which featured a field contracted to 48 teams from the 64 invited to 2019’s tourney, despite the pool of potential participants swelling to around twice as many teams as before due to the combining of the NAIA’s Division 1 and Division 2 prior to this season.

“There were a number of blowouts across the tourney all over the country in all the brackets. That is indicative of the way it is set up now,” said Woolley, who led the Western women’s basketball program to it first final four in 2018, the year before the team took the national title.

“With Division 1 and Division 2 combining and the number of automatic bids increasing,” said Woolley of a new tourney selection dynamic likely to blocked more worthy teams from getting at-large bids as some lesser ones earn automatic bids, “we will continue to see this over the years.”

Woolley believes that despite the imminent graduation of one of the most accomplished players in Bulldog women’s basketball history, his team remains well positioned to compete at the national tourney for years to come.

“I think we have a good base for the future. We have a lot of kids now who have some national tournament playing experience and Frontier Conference tourney playing experience, and know what it’s like to come up short,” said Woolley, whose team featured just a single senior this past season in its starting lineup, which sometimes boasted three sophomores (Mack, Lily Gopher and Sydney Sheridan) as well as a pair of junior frontcourt standouts in Mesa King and first-team All-Frontier Conference selection Fitzgerald.

“They’ve gotten a taste and understand now the work they’ll need to put in during the offseason as individuals in order to get better as a group during the season,” said Woolley, whose team, like other teams in the country this season faced pandemic-driven uncertainties about whether this past season would even happen and perpetual questions on how long it would continue once the season got going.

“I thought the team accomplished a lot this year. You have to start with their ability to stay healthy and focused through COVID. It shows they were committed to our program and making good decisions off the floor,” said Woolley of a group deprived of team dinners and many other relationship-building practices that got sidelined by the pandemic.

“They were a unified group— they got along. And as a coach, sometimes that’s what you worry about the most outside of the wins and losses. Their tightness as a group was exceptional and something they should be proud of,” added Woolley, whose team is sure to subtract just one player before next season.

“Everyone is coming back, as far as we know, other than Paige Holmes,” said Woolley of the graduating senior guard with one of the most impressive resumes in program history.

“Paige definitely left her mark on our program, and certainly left her mark on me and her teammates on how to approach your daily work as a college athlete. She is one of the hardest, if not the hardest worker, we’ve ever had, and definitely an exceptional human being,” said Woolley of the four-time national tourney participant, three-year starter, two-time Frontier Conference Defensive Player of the Year and one-time national champion.

“Those Paffhausens tend to never leave here,” said Woolley of the local family that Holmes, a Seeley Lake native, is set to become a part of with her marriage to Mick Paffhausen scheduled for June.

“We hope that the City of Dillon gets to keep her around forever,” said Woolley of Holmes, who is set to go into teaching

“It was tempting to come back for another season,” said Holmes, who, along with all other NAIA athletes, got granted an additional year of eligibility due to the pandemic.

“But I don’t have any more classes left to take,” said Holmes, who had to battle through the persistent pain of a herniated disk this season.

“I am just very thankful for my time here. I guess I am ready to move on. But it’s bittersweet for sure.”

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