NAIA National Tourney: Those Dawgs can dance Lady Dawgs advance to final four

King, seniors lead Lady Dawgs to national semis
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Court King

Montana Western’s Brianna King, the Frontier Conference Player of the Year, drives on a Freed-Hardeman foe during semfinal action Monday night. King totaled 90 points in Western’s four national tourney games. Western’s run at the national tourney ended with a 60-51 loss to the 33-4 Lady Lions who faced Westmont (Calif.) in Tuesday night’s championship game. Wally Feldt photo

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Looking to score

Western’s Cierra Lamey drives on a Freed-Hardeman foe during Monday night’s semifinal game. Western’s glorious season came to a close in a 61-50 loss. Wally Feldt photo

A season revived by an impromptu whiffle ball game in January ended on Monday with the University of Montana Western women’s basketball falling just short of hitting a grand slam at the national tourney.

The Lady Bulldogs won three games at the NAIA Division 1 Women’s Basketball Championship tournament in Billings before going down gamely two days ago in a semifinal showdown.

“This team exceeded everyone’s expectations,” declared UMW Head Coach Lindsay Woolley after his Lady Bulldogs fell, 61-50, in the tourney semifinals to Freed-Hardeman, the second-ranked team in the NAIA heading into the tourney.

The loss followed three earlierround tourney victories for the Lady Bulldogs, including a 66-54 win over Dillard in their national tourney opener last Wednesday, a 60-57 bettering of Campbellsville in the Sweet 16 round on Friday and a 74-61 triumph over Menlo in the tourney’s Duer Bracket final on Saturday.

“I’m just really happy for our seniors and upperclassmen to have experienced such a deep run at the national tourney,” added Woolley of a group of six departing players who have helped elevate the Lady Dawgs to the level of the national elites, just two years after they finished last in their conference and failed to even make their own league tournament.

“They’ve been huge.”

Junior Brianna King came up humongous for the Lady Bulldogs in Billings, scoring 90 points in the Western women’s four games at the national tourney.

Breaking down defenders and their ankle ligaments with her smooth crossovers, King went off for 40 points in UMW’s quarterfinal win over Menlo on Saturday, when the 5-foot-5-inch point guard hit nine field goals and all 18 of her foul shot attempts.

That effort by King not only pushed the Lady Bulldogs into their first ever Final Four, it likely sealed King a spot on the NAIA All-American team to be announced this week.

The junior transfer was able to accomplish all that, despite this being her first season at Montana Western, when she led the Lady Dawgs to a 27-9 record and their second straight national tourney.

“It’s not easy to integrate so well in your first season in a program. But that’s a testament to Bri’s character and to our upperclassmen. They embraced her, which is not always easy to do with a new player—especially one so talented who is going to be taking away minutes from some of those players. But they did, and Bri really appreciated that and it was reflected in her play.”

King showed her willingness to help the team in any way possible in the Dawgs’ second-round, contributing 5 assists and 4 steals in a game when Campbellsville limited her to just 10 points.

“I had an idea on how we wanted to attack Campbellsville offensively,” admitted Wooley, whose Dawgs got held to just 20 points in a 2014 game against Campbellsville.

“Campbellsville is extremely difficult to play against with their style of play,” commented Wooley of the the top seed in the tourney’s Duer Bracket and NAIA season leader in steals.

“They are hard-nosed and thrive on taking you out of your game,” continued Woolley, noting that while having an offafternoon shooting, King still managed on Friday to adopt and help her team overcome thirdranked team in the NAIA.

“She did a lot of things that game that didn’t show up on the stat sheet. Bri was able to get the ball to teammates who had open shots,” said Woolley, whose team was led in scoring by Savanna Bignell’s 14 points on Friday, when Cierra Lamey and Tori Anderson each scored 11 for UMW.

“Bri was just as good as in that game as the one in which she scored 40 points.”

Britt Cooper aided mightily in getting Western into that second- round game, scoring 12 points and hauling down 13 rebounds in the Lady Dawgs’ opening-round win in Billings over Dillard.

Down a point at halftime, the Western women outscored Dillard 21-6 in the third quarter, which also proved a fortuitous frame for them two days later against Campbellsville, which got outpointed 22-8 in the third quarter by Western.

Menlo was able to chisel four points off UMW’s 13-point halftime lead in the third quarter on Saturday, when the Dawgs benefitted from 15 points, 10 points and 4 steals by Cooper, as well as a dozen points by Savanna Bignell.

The going proved tougher in Monday’s semifinal, when Freed-Hardeman limited Western to just a half-dozen points in the third quarter, and then responded to the Dawgs’ 5-0 run to start the fourth to get within 5 points with a 7-0 run that kept the Tennesse-based Lady Lions a secure distance ahead the rest of the way.

But making the Final Four still demonstrated how far the Western women had come, from the bottom of their own league to near the top of the NAIA, in just two years. And even how far they’d come in just the past two months.

In the midst of a collective bout with the flu and a threegame skid that took them to the basement of the Frontier Conference standings in January, the Lady Bulldogs arrived at the Bulldog Athletic and Recreation Center one day to find that Coach Woolley had cancelled practice in favor of a game of whiffle ball.

“That really helped us just relax and stop worrying so much about how we were going to win our next game,” recalled UMW freshman Paige Holmes of the afternoon of whiffle ball with her teammates.

Even though none of them were in the starting lineup at the time, the Bulldog seniors also played a critical role in reversing the losing streak into a nine-game win streak that got the Lady Dawgs back into the national rankings and national tourney.

“We had amazing leadership from our upperclassmen,” said Woolley. “It’s rare to have six seniors who don’t play that much, and absolutely incredible to have them lead like they did, to bring such a high standard and work ethic to practice every day.

“I just loved going to practice every day and playing hard to help make my teammates better, and cheering my teammates on during games,” said senior Theresa Mac-dangosu, a senior forward from Nigeria.

“Being part of this program has been kind of a family tradition for the Bignells,” said Frankie Bignell, the third of four Bignells to come to Montana Western to play basketball.

‘It’s been nice to be part of that legacy. It’s like a giant family here. It’s been great to be here and be part of that and to be here when the program came such a long way over the last few years,” added Bignell, who has played her last for Montana Western.

“I saw it coming. I knew our program was heading in the right direction,” said senior Alexa Welch of the Dawgs’ dramatic revival over her final two years in the program.

“We’ve been recruiting girls who are not only good players, but good people who wanted to do well and who cared about each other, and that’s been key to the great chemistry we’ve developed on this team. That’s been huge,” said Welch after being honored in a Senior Night ceremony with her fellow Lady Bulldogs Frankie and Sierra Bignell, Jill Jacobs, Mac-dangosu and Dani Baker.

‘You felt it on the court and on the bench,” said Welch, who after graduating from UMW wants to go onto grad school and a career in forensic psychology.

“I wouldn’t have wanted to go to college anywhere else. I’ll be a Dawg until I die.”

WESTERN 66, DILLARD 54

UMW scoring – Brianna King 18, Britt Cooper 12, Paige Holmes 10, Sierra Bignell 8, Cierra Lamey 7, Savanna Bignell 6, Tori Anderson 3, Alexa Welch 2, Darby Schye 0.

Rebounds (48) – Cooper 13, Lamey 8. Assists (17) – Lamey 4, Cooper 4. Steals

(7) – Welch 2, King 2. Blocks (2) Cooper, King.

WESTERN 60, CAMPBELLSVILLE

57

UMW scoring – Savanna Bignell 14, Lamey 11, Anderson 11, King 10, Schye 6, Holmes 6, Cooper 2, Welch 0, Sierra Bignell 0 .

Rebounds (35) – Holmes 8, Lamey 6, Savanna Bignell 6. Assists (11) – King

5. Steals (9) – King 4. Blocks (2) – Holmes, Lamey.

WESTERN 74, MENLO 61

UMW scoring – King 40, Cooper 15, Savanna Bignell 12, Welch 4, Anderson 3, Sierra Bignell 0, Lamey 0, Schye 0, Holmes 0.

Rebounds (33) – Cooper 10, King 8. Assists (14) – Savanna Bignell 4, Cooper 3. Steals (11) – Cooper 4, Savanna Bignell

3. Blocks (1) – Cooper.

WESTERN 50,

FREED-HARDEMAN 61

UMW scoring – King 22, Lamey 10, Holmes 8, Cooper 5, Anderson 3, Savanna Bignell 2, Sierra Bignell 0, Welch 0, Shannon Worster 0.

Rebounds (38) – Cooper 12, Lamey 8. Assists (7) – King 4. Steals (5) – King 3. Blocks (1) – King.

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