HELENA — It was about five weeks ago when the Carroll College women’s basketball team walked off the floor of the McLaughlin Center in Great Falls.
The Saints missed a game-tying 3-pointer at the buzzer and were handed a 56-53 loss to the University of Providence.
“I just don’t think we played very well,” Carroll coach Rachelle Sayers reminisced.
But that loss was ultimately the turning point. All Sayers had to do was challenge her team.
The next day, Carroll (25-7) rebounded with a win on the road against Montana State-Northern. That spark turned into fire with the Saints winning their last 10 games to enter the NAIA National Tournament as one of the field’s hottest teams.
“It really put everything into perspective,” Saints senior forward Hannah Dean said. “From there we were able to step up and fix those mistakes.”
And now the Saints go into the NAIA national tournament this week in Billings as the No. 2 seed in their bracket.
They open the tournament at 8 p.m. Thursday against No. 7 Pikeville of Kentucky from the Mid-South Conference. However, it wasn't easy getting to this point.
“It’s been a roller coaster this season,” Dean said.
It wasn’t long after the season started that the Saints began their battle with adversity.
Carroll was supposed to feature a two-headed low post machine consisting of preseason all-conference seniors Dean and Cassidy (Hashley) Kosena.
That train was derailed during the second game of the season when Kosena tore her ACL in a matchup against The Master’s at the Carroll PE Center.
The Saints shifted to a four-guard lineup, placing sophomore Christine Denny in the post, and they started to gain momentum.
Wins started to add up, but it wasn’t until after the Providence loss that the team knew its potential.
“We started getting more contributions from everybody, including the bench, and it made a huge difference,” Sayers said. “The hard work finally started to pay off.”
That also started to take the pressure away from Dean, the team’s leading scorer with 15.2 points per game.
Each of the other four starters have increased their contributions, so much so that they each scored 10 or more points in a game during the winning streak. The most recent victory came in the Frontier Championship where senior Brittney Johnson finished with 16 points and key 3-pointers down the stretch.
But while the team has been all smiles, soaking in this past month’s success, and slaying top 25 teams such as Montana Western, Rocky Mountain and Lewis-Clark State, Sayers knows there is still work to be done.
After all, she did say this is the hottest team she has taken into the national tournament.
“Obviously, you want to go in there after winning a few games,” Sayers said. “When you get to this point, it’s all about matchups and the path your bracket gives you.”
Pikeville (20-11) lost in the quarterfinals of its conference tournament to Georgetown (Kentucky), but finished with a strong enough resume to grab an at-large bid for the second time in three years.
Not only do the Bears have experience on the national stage, they also have the height advantage.
Pikeville features four players above 6 feet, but looking up is nothing knew for Carroll this season.
It just knows it needs to maintain focus when it steps into the Rimrock Auto Arena.
“It’s kind of overwhelming when you first walk in,” Dean said. “But after that, it’s mostly just exhilarating.”