BILLINGS — Five Frontier Conference teams earned bids for the upcoming NAIA women's basketball national championship, though very few people will be on hand to see the games due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.

Following up on a similar decision made by the NCAA earlier in the day, NAIA officials will limit attendance to the tournament, which will be held March 18-24 at First Interstate Arena at MetraPark in Billings, to essential staff and players' families.

“After a thorough examination of the widespread health risks posed by COVID-19, the NAIA has decided to restrict attendance at upcoming championships to only essential staff and limited family members,” NAIA president and CEO Jim Carr said in a press release.

“We know this is disappointing to participating student-athletes and fans, but the health and wellness of all those involved with our championship events is our top priority.”

Montana Western coach Lindsay Woolley, who guided the Bulldogs to the national championship last season, told 406mtsports.com that he is in favor of the NAIA canceling the tournament, as teams are scheduled to fly into the Billings area from across the continental United States.

"It would be heartbreaking, but I don't think they should have it, to be honest with you," said Woolley, whose team earned a No. 5 seed for this year's tournament. "What's the positive? We don't know where this thing's going, and why would you expose a bunch of 18- to 22-year-olds and their families for a game? It doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

"I worry about our kids. I think that's our concern as coaches."

Though it seemed secondary to Wednesday's events, five Frontier teams punched tickets for the 32-team gathering, which didn't surprise Rocky Mountain College coach Wes Keller.

“I think, honestly, our league top to bottom is one of the best in the country,” said Keller, whose Battlin' Bears have an automatic berth to the tournament by virtue of being the host team.

“I’ve said this many times before: There’s not a team in our league that you walk in and know that you’ve got a victory against. Hopefully all of our teams can maintain the momentum they’ve had and have success.”

Providence, the Frontier tournament champion, is the No. 6 seed in the Cramer quadrant. The Argos (21-12) will play third-seeded Freed-Hardeman (Tenn.) in the first round Wednesday at 1:45 p.m.

Carroll College and Montana Western each received No. 5 seeds. Carroll (21-10) will take on No. 4 Columbia (Mo.) in the first round in the Liston quadrant while UM Western (20-11) drew No. 4 Lindsey Wilson (Ky.) in the first round in the Duer quadrant.

Western will play Wednesday at 5:45 p.m. Carroll’s game tips off Thursday at 6:15 p.m.

Rocky Mountain (19-11) is the No. 7 seed in the Duer quadrant. The Battlin’ Bears, who received an automatic bid as the host team, will be play No. 2 seed Central Methodist (Mo.) in the first round on Wednesday at 8 p.m.

“They’re talented. I think they want to play and up-tempo game, so for us, controlling the tempo is going to be huge,” Keller said.

Lewis-Clark State (21-10), the No. 6 seed in the Naismith quadrant, will play Talladega (Ala.) in a first-round game Thursday at 10:45 p.m.

The overall No. 1 seed is Westmont (Calif.). Westmont will open with MidAmerica Nazarene (Kan.) in the first round of the Naismith quadrant on Thursday at 2:15.

The NCAA on Wednesday announced that its men's and women's tournaments would be played without fans as a result of concerns from the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

Before their decision, NAIA officials were debating their next move — whether to play the tournament as planned, to host it in front of a limited audience or to cancel it outright, Visit Billings executive director Alex Tyson told The Billings Gazette.

“At this time, the two major considerations are to hold the event, but limit the number (of) workers, fans, etc., as the NCAA will, or cancel the tournament(s). However, there are many other scenarios being discussed,” Tyson wrote in an email earlier Wednesday.

If the tournament is played as scheduled, it will finish March 24 with the championship game at 7 p.m. at First Interstate Arena.

Email Greg Rachac at Greg.Rachac@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @gregrachac

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