BILLINGS — Wes Keller stood in front of his team, searching for the right words.
The Rocky Mountain College women’s basketball team was preparing to play Freed-Hardeman, the No. 1 team in the country, in the opening round of the NAIA Division I National Championship.
The 2016-17 season had been a difficult one for Keller and the Battlin’ Bears players.
This was supposed to be the turnaround season for Rocky, Keller’s third as head coach.
With a strong corps or returnees, the recruiting class brought additional speed and scoring ability.
Rocky, the host team, would walk proudly in the front door of Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark for the NAIA Tournament.
Instead, the Battlin’ Bears limped home.
Rocky lost three players — Taylor Deaton, Mikayla Jones and Keisha Engelhardt — to season-ending knee injuries during the regular season.
Losing one player to a knee injury is bad enough. But three? That would stagger any program. Especially when two of the players are your leading scorers.
The string of injuries left Keller reeling. He questioned his practices, wondering if he could have done anything different.
While other coaches offered their sympathies, Keller refused to offer excuses. His players were the same way.
Rocky entered the national tournament 13-18. There were whispers that the Battlin’ Bears should step aside and let another team play in the 32-team field.
That was not going to happen.
If Keller was down to one player remaining, the uber-competitive coach would make sure that player was well prepared for the next opponent.
He can be tough on the court — “If he’s yelling at you, it’s for a reason,” said Hailee Farstveet — but not many knew that Keller had taken Jones into his home after her knee surgery to make the recovery process easier for a player so far from family.
Keller, in the belly of the arena, searched for the right words to inspire his team as it faced its toughest challenge of the season. In front of a big home crowd, nonetheless.
“We talked about all the hard work they put in,” Keller said. “Nobody works harder, I truly believe that.
“I told them, ‘I don’t know when the work will pay off. It might come later down the road. But at some point, good things will go your way.’ ”
A spirited Rocky lost to Freed-Hardeman 62-52, but impressed those in attendance with their effort.
It might have come a year later than expected, but the Battlin’ Bears are having their turnaround season.
Rocky has won 23 games this season — believed to be a program record — and was ranked as high as No. 12 in the country, also a program best.
This year, no one is disputing the Battlin’ Bears belonging in the national tournament. Rocky plays Science & Arts of Oklahoma on Wednesday at 8 p.m. in the first round.
“I knew we could play at that level and compete,” said Keller.
It’s an unselfish team with balanced scoring. Rocky ranks among the nation’s leaders for defensive points allowed.
“The tournament lit a fire under them,” Keller said of the returning players. “I saw them work harder in the offseason, getting in the gym more.”
The Battlin’ Bears made their statement early, defeating Lewis-Clark State and Montana Western at home to start the Frontier Conference season. Both were ranked among the top 10 nationally at the time.
“That first week of conference games at home was huge,” Farstveet said. “That’s the thing with coach Keller, he has confidence in all of us.”
With the animated Keller directing — “If he’s not happy, he lets you know,” Farstveet added with a smile — the Battlin’ Bears finished third in the regular-season standings and reached the Frontier Conference title game.
“This is really a calm group,” Keller said. “They don’t get rattled by much. They go at everything hard and compete every night.
“Even with the adversity we went through last year, this group never made excuses.”
And finally got paid.