HELENA — Two teams that have combined to win the last three regular season championships on the women’s side in the Frontier Conference will face off this weekend in the PE Center.
Both at 5-1 in conference play, Carroll College and Montana Western are once again vying for the top spot in league play.
“It feels like a little bit of familiar territory with us and Western kind of three years in a row battling it out,” Carroll head coach Rachelle Sayers said. “Western is just one of those teams that, regardless of who’s on the floor or who they have returning, they’re always going to come out and go at you. They battle extremely hard, they play with a great sense of purpose. They know what their job is and they go out and do it to the best of their ability.”
Western’s lone loss of the season came on Dec. 12 against Montana Tech as the Bulldogs will roll into Helena on a five-game win streak. Despite losing its top-three scorers from a season ago, Western owns a plus-11 scoring margin through eight games and is a top-15 team in the country with nine made 3-pointers, on average, per game.
What the Bulldogs really hang their hat on, however, is defensive pressure and turning teams over. Averaging 14.4 steals per game, Western is the 10th-best team in that respect in the NAIA. Three Bulldogs have amassed over 20 steals this season, led by sophomore Sydney Sheridan, and five total players own at least 10 steals though eight games.
“The biggest thing is that I don’t know that it’s the press that really turns people over, I think it’s mostly [that] they just wear you down with constant pressure,” Sayers said. “They’re not very predictable about when they’re going to trap or where they’re going to trap or how they’re going to trap. I think the biggest thing is that all five players on the floor stay engaged throughout the entire possession.”
Not getting sped up in the traps Western employs is a big key to not turning the ball over, Sayers said, and staying fundamentally sound in getting the ball over half-court and running an offense is important.
“I think if we can do that, and just really be fundamentally sound, not take any high risks, play off two feet and move the ball, I think we’ll be able to handle it,” Sayers said. “If they speed us up and we start getting unfundamental and we start to relax in the half-court, then I think that’s where their pressing and trapping really pays off.”
While Sheridan and fellow sophomore Shainy Mack have racked up a combined 42 steals this season, junior Brynley Fitzgerald has 20 of her own. She is also Western’s leading scorer, averaging 14.5 points per game.
At 5-foot-11, Fitzgerald fails to fit into any one role on the basketball court. She shoots the ball at a 43.8 percent clip and is over 40 percent from 3-point range. Fitzgerald is also second on Western’s roster with 6.5 rebounds per game.
“If she gets the rebound, she’ll just take the ball down the floor and she’ll end up at the point spot,” Sayers said about Fitzgerald. “A lot of teams have trouble getting matched up in transition because of that or because she’s running to the deep corner for threes. Posts traditionally aren’t used to transitioning to those spots. We’ve got to really find her in transition early and get matched up.”
With Fitzgerald presenting so much of a mismatch problem, Sayers said multiple players will likely guard her throughout the weekend. Christine Denny will be the primary defender in half-court sets and made basket situations, but in transition, it will be whomever gets back on defense first.
Staying in front of Fitzgerald and forcing her into tough shots is the No. 1 priority for the Saints after finding her in transition. Flying at her on a close-out and allowing her to drive to the basket is not an option, Sayers said, and getting her to take a tough two is the goal.
Aside from Fitzgerald, the Bulldogs have three other players averaging double digits. Mack scores nearly 13 points per game, while redshirt sophomore Jenni Weber and Sheridan post closer to 10 points per contest.
The Saints will counter with a defense that only allows 58.3 points per game, a number that ranks 21th in the NAIA. That defensive effort is anchored by Carroll’s ability to keep opponents off the boards as the Saints are the fourth-best team in the country in total rebound defense.
Their rebound margin of plus-8.9 ranks inside the top-15 nationally while the Saints’ plus-13.2 scoring margin is a top-35 number in the country.
The trio of Danielle Wagner, Denny and sophomore Jamie Pickens account for nearly 55 percent of Carroll’s average scoring output per game. Add in junior Sienna Swannack’s 9.5 points per game and that number jumps to over 68 percent.
Controlling the pace of this weekend’s games will be important to the success of the Saints. Making shots, having good offensive possessions that end with quality shots and crashing the boards will also be key in keeping the Bulldogs from getting out and running in transition.
“Really it comes down to, if we can pound the offensive glass and get some second and third opportunities, then they’re taking the ball out of bounds and coming at us versus coming at us from a turnover or long, quick shots,” Sayers said. “We need to have good offensive possessions and ball possession will be key to that.”
While Western is still the reigning NAIA Division I National Champion from 2019, it is Carroll that rolls into the weekend as the seventh-ranked team in the country. The Bulldogs were not listed in the most recent top-25 poll on Wednesday, but did receive votes. Nevertheless, these two games will decide who owns first place in the Frontier Conference come Monday morning with a month left in the regular season.
Tip off for Saturday’s game is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. inside the PE Center, with Sunday’s game slated for 2 p.m.