UMW Lady Bulldogs post 3-1 record at Arizona tourney

M.P. Regan
Wednesday, December 29, 2021

For Christmas, Santa took the University of Montana Western women’s basketball team on a long sleigh ride to a warm-weather working vacation, where they gained some new, valuable experiences.

Plus three wins in the final three games of the four-game road trip—but they were no gifts, just hard-earned triumphs.

“It was a good trip,” said UMW Head Coach Lindsey Woolley of his team’s Dec. 18–22 journey to just north of the south of the border in Arizona for three games at the Cactus Classic, following one against Arizona Christian.

“We got to play four quality opponents, all potential national tourney teams,” said Woolley of the quartet of games against teams from four different states—Arizona Christian, Mid-America Nazarene University from Kansas, South Dakota’s Dakota State University and Bushnell University of Oregon, all contenders for 2022 NAIA tourney bids, according to Woolley.

The Lady Bulldogs got bolstered in their drive to gain an invitation for their seventh straight trip to the NAIA tourney in March with good showings in Arizona, highlighted by UMW’s 60-56 victory last Tuesday over Dakota State University, the no. 17 team in the latest NAIA Coaches Poll.

Ranked 21st heading into the game, UMW ultimately secured victory against DSU in the backand-forth contest in the manner a team so often has to in the postseason tourney—by hitting its late foul shots.

“We got it out to a good lead a bunch of different times,” recalled Woolley, whose Lady Dawgs led by double-digits in each of the game’s four quarters before DSU clawed its way back.

“But their pressure was so persistent, they just kept coming back. It was a good game between two teams that play very similar styles,” said Woolley, of the full-court pressure the DSU Trojans used to fluster UMW into committing 23 turnovers, a half-dozen more than the Dawgs agitated Dakota State into coughing up with their pressure defense.

“I thought our kids made just enough good plays late and stops down the stretch to hold them off,” recalled Woolley, who got seven free throws—five of them from Brynley Fitzgerald—in the game’s final 50 seconds, as the Bulldogs finally nailed down the hard-fought victory along the foul line.

Fitzgerald contributed a dozen rebounds and a half-dozen assists along with a dozen-and-a-half points to UMW’s winning cause, which also benefitted greatly from the Bulldogs’ 22-5 advantage in bench scoring.

“We had a lot of players step up and contribute during the trip,” said Woolley of his team’s showing of depth.

“Jayden Winslow gave us a good contribution off the bench,” noted Woolley of the sophomore guard out of Libby who notched 26 points during a trip in which Woolley got good minutes from ten different players.

“And Natali Denning had some good moments,” added Woolley of 6-foot Oregon product who provided 6 points and 3 rebounds against DSU.

Jenni Weber led the UMW reserves against DSU with 12 points—her per-game average across the final three games of the road trip.

All of the sophomore guard out of Chicago’s dozen points against DSU came from beyond the arc, where the Bulldogs continue to look comfortable shooting.

“Obviously, you can shoot yourself out of some games out there. But with this team I think we have enough good shooters where someone is going to be making them. It’s just a matter of working to get the open ones we want, and finding the hot shooters,” said Woolley, who found a particularly hot shooter in the team’s final game of the road trip, a 77-68 victory over Bushnell.

Starting guard Shainy Mack buried 4 of 6 and 8 of 10 overall from the field from long range on her way to scoring a team high 20 points last Wednesday against Bushnell.

“Shainy shot as well against Bushnell as well as I’ve seen her during her time here,” said Woolley of the starting guard, now in her third season as a big contributor.

“Which was good because we were struggling a little offensively in that game,” conceded Woolley, whose team found itself in a 41-41 tie in the third quarter before its minitreyluge, during which the Dawgs hit four straight deep shots—three by Mack— from all sides of the arc to take a dozen-point lead Bushnell would not seriously threaten the rest of the game.

“When you hit half of your 3s in a game,” said Woolley, whose Bulldogs converted 13 of 26 efforts from deep against Bushnell, “you’re usually going to be happy with the result.”

UMW also gained a pleasing outcome two days early, a 60-59 win over MidAmerica Nazarene in its Cactus Classic opener.

A near doubling up of their opponents in the third quarter, when UMW outscored the Pioneers, 20-11, proved the difference, as the Bulldogs used that nine-quarter cushion built following a halftime deadlock to fend off the MidAmerica Nazarene’s fourth-quarter rallies.

Fitzgerald led UMW with 17 points and 11 rebounds, while her frontcourt mate Mesa King recorded 15 points and 6 rebounds.

“Mesa came in this year in great shape, and has had to battle some injuries,” said Woolley of the 6-foot-1-inch senior forward, the last remaining member of his Bulldogs’ 2019 national championship team. “But she’s really gaining confidence.”

Western began its southern road swing with a less-happy result, a confidence-testing 84-77 loss to Arizona Christian, which took control of the contest in the third quarter by more than-doubling-up Western, 33-16.

Fitzgerald notched 25 points in the Dec. 18 game.

Next up for the Lady Bulldogs, a longer-than-expected break.

With their four games originally scheduled between now and the end of the year called off due to COVID and related travel issues, the Bulldogs will next play in their next Frontier Conference game—a Jan. 6 showdown in Great Falls against the University of Providence (13-3), which went 3-0 in its recent road trip to Arizona and finished just outside the Top 25 in the most recent NAIA Coaches Poll.

The Lady Bulldogs will then return to Dillon to host Montana State University-Northern (4-9) in Straugh Gymnasium, with tip off set for 2 p.m.

See next week’s Dillon Tribune to check if the games will be played under any fan restrictions due to the surge in Covid cases around the country.