Westmont vs. Freed-Hardeman (copy)

Freed-Hardeman celebrates its win over Westmont in the championship game of the NAIA Women’s Division I National Championship at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark on Tuesday, March 20, 2018.

BILLINGS — Area basketball fans will have two more years to enjoy the NAIA Women’s Division I National Basketball Tournament in Billings.

With the merger of the two divisions for basketball scheduled for the 2020-21 academic year, NAIA officials announced the new one-division tournament will be in Sioux City, Iowa.

The NAIA Division I Women’s National Tournament will remain at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark for this year and 2020. This year’s tournament is March 13-19.

The contract for Sioux City goes through 2024. Sioux City has hosted the NAIA Women’s Division II National Tournament since 1998.

The Tyson Events Center is also the site of the NAIA Volleyball National Championship.

“We understand,” said Rocky Mountain College athletic director Jeff Malby of the NAIA decision. “Sioux City has been putting on the Division II tournament for years.

“Our last year will be the 40th anniversary of the first NAIA tournament and we plan to go all out and make it the best one ever.”

Spearheaded by the efforts of Visit Billings executive director Alex Tyson and then-Rocky athletic director Bruce Parker, Billings was awarded the NAIA Women’s Division I Tournament in September of 2016 after Independence, Missouri, opted out of its final year of hosting.

The 2017 NAIA tournament in Billings drew almost 13,000 fans across the six days. The 2018 tournament saw a 35 percent increase in attendance with more than 17,000 watching. The attendance got a boost by the free admission of 2,900 school children through a program sponsored through Scheel’s and Cooper Tire/Tire-Rama.

The tournament also drew positive reviews from participating coaches and players.

“Billings did an excellent job with the tournament, which says a lot about our city,” said Rocky women’s head coach Wes Keller. “Give credit to Alex Tyson, Bruce Parker and Jeff Malby.”

The NAIA Council of Presidents voted to approve the merger of the two divisions in April of 2018.

Along with the merger, the national tournament format will change in 2021.

The 64 teams will be divided into 16 four-team sites as part of the NAIA Opening Round Tournaments. The champions from each will advance to Sioux City.

Currently, 32 teams play in Billings and Sioux City.

Last year, Freed-Hardeman (Tennessee) defeated Westmont (California) 76-64 at Rimrock Auto Arena for its first NAIA national title.

Montana Western of the Frontier Conference advanced all the way to the semifinals before losing to the eventual national champions 60-51.

The pairings for the NAIA Women’s Division I National Tournament will be announced on March 6.

Email Joe Kusek at joe.kusek@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @GazSportsJoe

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