HELENA — A 70-59 win over Montana Western on Sunday afternoon in Dillon put the finishing touches on one of the better seasons in Carroll women’s basketball history. At 13-1 in the Frontier Conference, Carroll has locked up the No. 1 seed in the upcoming league tournament, but also posted the first one-loss season in conference play in program history since at least the 2003-04 season.
“I’m just really, really proud of this group,” Saints head coach Rachelle Sayers said. “It’s been a grind, and to be able to come down here and win two in Dillon against an unbelievable, feisty and competitive Western team is really a big feat for us. It’s been a long journey, I don’t think we’re done yet, but just really proud of the fight the kids showed tonight.”
A first-round bye in the Frontier tournament is the Saints’ reward, and with a weekend sweep of Western, Carroll helped ensure the Bulldogs would not claim the No. 2 seed and final remaining quarterfinals bye. Instead, Western will be the No. 3 seeded team, slated to play No. 6 in the opening round.
Carroll gets the lowest remaining seed from those quarterfinal games at the PE Center on Saturday.
To cap off the regular season, the Saints handed Western its fourth consecutive loss and completed the season sweep of the Bulldogs. Senior Danielle Wagner scored a game-high 25 points as one of four Saints in double figures. Carroll runs its winning streak to eight games with the victory to end the regular season.
“The word that comes to mind is resilient,” Sayers said of her team. “It’s different players at different times that step up and give us that lift. Tonight you see Jaidyn Lyman getting 10 points, Sienna Swannack getting 11...I thought we just got so many contributions from everybody. I think that’s what makes this group so special that it doesn’t matter who’s in or who’s playing and who’s not, they’re each other’s biggest fans.”
Seniors Jaidyn Lyman and Christine Denny, as well as junior Sienna Swannack, joined Wagner in double digits with 10, 11 and 11 points, respectively.
Against one of the better defensive teams in the Frontier, Carroll struggled to get going offensively on Sunday. Down 11-3 in the early going, it took a 10-0 Saints run to even things at 13 through the first 10 minutes of action.
A back-and-forth second quarter ensued, and just when it looked like Carroll would enter halftime trailing with all the momentum swung Western’s way, the Saints ripped off an 8-0 run to seize a 37-30 advantage at intermission.
One of Wagner’s five made 3-pointers on the evening helped spark that scoring streak, as did one of Carroll’s eight team steals. Junior Kamden Hilborn turned that steal into two of the Saints’ 19 points off turnovers right before the halftime buzzer. Hilborn finished the game with four points, but a game-high nine assists in the win.
“It was huge,” Sayers said of the run. “The two three’s were big. Western came down, was going to hold for the last shot, Kamden made a great play, read the passing lane...We really needed that because Western really came out aggressive, they really came out with a lot of energy. They socked us first and we really had to fight those first two quarters to get back in that thing. That was the momentum swing we really needed.”
Down by 12 points going into the fourth quarter, Western began chipping its way back into the game. The Bulldogs cut Carroll’s lead all the way down to six points before Wagner stepped into a 3-pointer and buried it to stretch that advantage back to nine.
Western could not get closer than that the remainder of the game despite three players scoring in double figures. Redshirt senior Paige Holmes paced the Bulldogs with 16 points, while sophomore Shainy Mack and junior Brynley Fitzgerald finished with 13 and 12 points, respectively.
Fitzgerald, Western’s leading scorer coming into the game, took just six shots and needed a last-second 3-pointer to break into double digits as the Carroll defense focused much of its attention on her all game.
“It was three different players with that assignment,” Sayers said. “Christine Denny, Emma Madsen, Sienna Swannack all took their turns on her and I thought they did a really good job. Fitzgerald got a three right there at the end, or we hold her to single digits scoring...I thought the effort and focus defensively was really good.”
As a team, the Bulldogs shot 37.9 percent from the field, including 33.3 percent from behind the arc. Carroll cleared 49 percent on 25-for-51 shooting, and buried nine 3-pointers as a team.
The Saints out-rebounded Western 37-24 on Sunday and edged the Bulldogs 30-22 on points in the paint. Carroll attempted 13 free throws to Western’s seven and held the home team to just one free throw attempt through three quarters with solid defense and very little fouling.
Carroll plans to take Monday off and then get right back in the gym to prepare for the conference tournament. The Saints will not know their opponent until after Thursday’s quarterfinal matchups, leaving time for them to work on themselves throughout the week.
“This year our whole focus has always been on us and how we’re going to get better,” Sayers said. “With not knowing our opponent until after Thursday night, I think we’ll have to take that same approach. Wednesday, Thursday we’ll really work on us and Friday we’ll learn who we get an opportunity to play and we’ll start getting the game plan in.”
Carroll will host the lowest remaining seed from the quarterfinal games on Saturday at 5 p.m. inside the PE Center.