BILLINGS — The University of Providence women’s basketball team didn’t know its future after getting eliminated in the quarterfinals of the Frontier Conference Tournament.
Sophomore point guard Emilee Maldonado even said they were on the fence whether or not they would get invited to the NAIA National Tournament this season.
But after three laps of the Frontier Conference schedule, the committee decided to reward the Argos with a No. 8 seed in the NAIA National Tournament.
The gift was something Providence coach Bill Himmelberg credits to a tough conference schedule, despite losing four out of the last six games and finishing fifth in the conference.
“We went in with the same mindset that we prepare when we play in the Frontier Conference,” Himmelberg said. “We never questioned the fact that we could win this game.”
And they nearly had the tournament buzzing.
Providence gave nationally second-ranked Campbellsville University all it could handle, nearly upsetting the Tigers. A five-minute overtime period seemed to be the difference. The game ended with an 89-84 first round loss.
“It was a tough game,” Himmelberg said. “Our girls battled hard and I thought we showed we deserved to be here.”
While Providence (18-13) didn’t have the most impressive record in the field, he credits the strenuous schedule the Frontier Conference hands him week after week.
“When you play in the best conference I think in the country, you are going to be able to play at a level like this when the opportunity comes up,” Himmelberg said.
Preparing with a tough conference schedule is nothing new for Himmelberg. Now in his eighth year with Providence, he has taken that success on a national level.
Two years ago the Argos advanced to the quarterfinals as a five seed. Last year, they advanced to the second round as a seven seed knocking off second seeded Oklahoma City.
This year the Argos were armed with a hefty resume that saw wins over the top four Frontier schools along with upset wins over The Master’s, Westmont and Arizona Christian.
Maldonado started all 31 games this season. She saw the ups and downs, but knew it would prepare her for the bright lights of Rimrock Arena in Billings.
She led the Argos with 13 points at halftime.
More importantly, her team trailed by just five points.
“We knew coming in it was going to be a tough battle,” Maldonado said.
Providence came back to take the lead on Campbellsville in the third quarter and extended it to as many as six points with their home crowd on its feet.
But the Tigers’ post presence of senior Jordan Doram was unstoppable.
The Argos have seen plenty of talented post players throughout the Frontier Conference such as Carroll College’s Hannah Dean or Rocky Mountain’s Markeala Francis, but Doram was on a whole different level.
She set a career-best with 40 points on 14 of 18 shooting.
“We knew their inside presence was going to be good,” Himmelberg said. “We got into a bit of foul trouble and couldn’t defend them how we liked.”
The post trio of Parker Esary, Tristan Murphy and Elly Teske did its best keeping the Argos close and extended the game when Maldonado hit two free throws with four seconds left in regulation.
Esary left in the opening seconds of overtime with an injured ankle and did not return, which proved to be the difference in overtime.
Providence got within three points with 31 seconds left but free throws down the stretch sealed the game.
The Argos graduate just two players from the roster, one that saw just one game this season.
“We are really young and they are really motivated to do a better job in the Frontier Conference,” Himmelberg said. “If we worked harder in the regular season, we would have gotten a better seed.”
That says something when an eight almost beat a one.