BILLINGS — Justyn Juhl and her Rocky Mountain College teammates realize their previous two trips to the NAIA national tournament have not been long.
“We know our stays have been short, one and done,” she said.
This time, the Battlin’ Bears would like to make an extended visit.
“We want to come in here and make a statement,” continued Juhl. “We want to make a run at this thing … we’re looking to win this thing.”
The No. 20 ranked Battlin’ Bears (21-12) will try to make program history when they play No. 16 Shawnee State of Ohio (24-9) at 6:15 p.m. on Thursday in the first round of the NAIA Division I Women’s Basketball Championships at Rimrock Auto Arena.
Rocky is the No. 4 seed in the Duer bracket while Shawnee State is No. 5. Carroll is in the same bracket and the No. 2 seed.
The Battlin' Bears are seeking their first national tournament win in their fourth appearance and third straight for being the host school. Shawnee State, also the Bears, is making its ninth consecutive trip. Both played in Billings last year. Shawnee State has reached the Sweet 16 in eight of its nine appearances. Last year, Shawnee State defeated Grand View in the first round and lost to Wayland Baptist in the second.
Despite a constantly changing lineup because of a series of injuries, the Battlin’ Bears posted their second straight 20-win season.
Rocky has three players averaging in double figures, led by Alecia Chamberlin’s 11.5 points a game. Markaela Francis is averaging 11.0 and Juhl 10.4. Juhl also has a team-high 44 3-pointers, while Francis is the team’s leading rebounder. Freshman guard Kloie Thatcher has 128 assists.
“So much has happened this season,” Juhl said. “We’ve had to rely on each other, we’re all really close. We have a lot of confidence in each other.”
Shawnee State relies heavily on 3-pointers, making 266 this season. By comparison, Frontier Conference leader Montana Western has 253.
The Bears, averaging 80.8 points a game, rank fourth nationally for total points and fifth for points per game.
Shania Massie has a team-high 60 3-pointers for the team from Ohio while leading scorer Ashton Lovely has 53. Lovely is averaging 14 points a game.
Shawnee State allows 63.4 points per game.
“They are very aggressive off the bounce,” said Rocky head coach Wes Keller. “They like to dribble drive, drive the lane and kick back out to shoot 3’s.
“They like to push the pace. We’ve got to transition back on defense. One of the keys for us is to control the tempo of the game. We can’t get into a track meet.”
The Battlin' Bears counter with a defense that ranks seventh nationally for 3-point field goal and field goal defense and eighth in scoring defense. Rocky is allowing just 53 points a game.
Rocky is 0-2 since the NAIA Tournament came to Billings, losing 62-52 to Freed-Hardeman in 2017 and 60-52 to Oklahoma Science and Art last season.
Both came had a common factor for the Battlin’ Bears: They shot less than 30 percent from the field in both.
“We’ve got to shoot better,” Keller said.
NOTES: Rocky is one of five teams from the Frontier Conference playing this week. The Battlin’ Bears are joined by Montana Western, Lewis-Clark State, Carroll and Providence ... Last year, Providence upset defending national champion Oklahoma City in the first round. ... A Rocky win on Thursday would put the Battlin’ Bears against the winner of Columbia (Missouri) and Clarke (Iowa) on Friday at 8 p.m. Columbia is the No. 1 seed for the eight-team Duer bracket.