Dani Wagner vs. MSUN 2021

Carroll's Dani Wagner attempts a 3-pointer during the Saints' 82-40 win over MSU-Northern.

The non-conference, or preseason, schedule is over. It is time for Frontier Conference basketball, and after fans received a little taste in December, the stretch run is here, beginning on Thursday night for Carroll’s women’s basketball team.

“We have the preseason, conference season and, hopefully, postseason,” Saints head coach Rachelle Sayers said. “This is the most important part of our season. We had those two early conference games, but it really feels like now we’re officially in conference. I know the players are really excited. It’s going to be a super competitive league, again. Every night is going to be a fight. We’re just excited to get going, get back to playing at home.”

No. 5 Carroll last played a home game more than a month ago. That, too, was a conference game, the Saints league-opener against Montana State Northern. This weekend brings Montana Tech and Rocky Mountain College to the PE Center, a venue in which Carroll sports a 7-1 record this season.

At 14-2, it is rare to see Carroll play a team with a lower loss total. Rocky Mountain College, Carroll’s opponent on Saturday, will have no more than two losses (and probably just one) when the Battlin’ Bears roll into Helena.

Carroll has to get through a .500 Tech team on Thursday first, but Saturday’s matchup could prove to be the most exciting. Behind NCAA Division I transfer N’Dea Flye, Rocky Mountain is 13-1 (one forfeit victory) and knocked off No. 16 Vanguard University on Dec. 20.

Flye, who has made stops at two different Division I institutions in New Mexico and Butler, is averaging 18.5 points and 10.2 rebounds through 13 games. Those marks are first- and second-best, respectively, in the Frontier. Four times this season Flye has dropped at least 20 points.

“Flye is probably one of the best players in the league,” Sayers said. “She scores in high volumes. She’s a great defender. She gets a lot of her scores off picking a point guard and going down and finishing. Then she rebounds really hard. It’s not just about how do you defend a really good scorer, it’s how do you keep her in check, but also, knowing that she’s got four players around her that can all score 20 [points] any given night.”

To stop Flye, the Saints are prepared to turn to Sienna Swannack. The coaching staff views Swannack as one of the best, if not the best, defenders on the team.

“Sienna has kinda been our defensive stopper,” Sayers said. “She likes that role. Her length is really nice to have. She’s quick enough to guard a lot of guards and her length just helps her to guard some of those players that are maybe a little bit taller. She’s a smart defender, she doesn’t get herself into foul trouble. She rarely gets beat. When somebody likes that role, you want to give them that opportunity to have it.”

Shauna Bribiescas, Kloie Thatcher and Mackenzie Dethman join Flye as having started all 13 games for Rocky Mountain this season. Thatcher and Bribiescas average better than 13 points per game and are first and second on the roster in made 3-pointers.

Carroll did not play Rocky Mountain last year due to game cancellations, but the Battlin’ Bears finished just 1-11. From the team Carroll last played in February of 2020, Rocky Mountain features almost a completely different roster.

The Saints have won seven-straight games entering Thursday. That includes a 67-55 win over Westmont, the defending NAIA National Champions, back before Christmas. Carroll also has a pair of top-15 victories to its credit, beating Saint Xavier and Lindsey Wilson during a tournament in Kentucky in November. Carroll’s only two losses this season came against teams currently ranked inside the top-4 in the NAIA coaches’ poll.

Heading into this weekend, the Saints are looking to continue what has worked for them so far this season. Carroll enters Thursday ranked inside the top-15 nationally in field goal percentage (48.2 percent), 3-point field goal percentage (36.2 percent) and assists per game (18.4). Carroll is scoring the 32nd-most points per game (76.6) and allowing the 11th-fewest (53.1) in the NAIA.

“We definitely have to keep sharing the ball like we are,” Sayers said. “Our offensive efficiency has been really good in this preseason…I think that says a lot about your team’s chemistry and their ability to understand what needs to get done and when and how we’re gonna do it…We are not a hero-ball team. We’re not a one-on-one team. We’re a team that plays really well together and thrives off each other’s successes.”

Dani Wagner paces the team in scoring at 16.3 points per game. She has made 46 3-pointers in 15 games while shooting 46.5 percent from long-distance. Wagner missed Carroll’s most recent trip to Oregon. Jaidyn Lyman started in her place in a win against Willamette on Saturday and again in an exhibition against NCAA Division I Oregon on Sunday.

Wagner did practice Wednesday in preparation for Thursday’s game against Tech.

Jamie Pickens and Christine Denny are each shooting better than 50 percent from the field and averaging north of 11.5 points and six rebounds per game. Swannack scored 20 points against Westmont and averages 10 per game to go along with 3.9 rebounds and 2.3 assists.

After a conference schedule without fans last year, expect a near-capacity crowd on Thursday to witness another installment of the Carroll-Tech rivalry. The Saints have won 14-straight contests against the Orediggers dating back to 2018, including four wins by double digits last season.

“Every time we play Tech we know they’re going to bring their best,” Denny said. “They want to come in here and put a beat-down on us just as much as we want to beat them. We’re just getting ready for a battle and preparing for what we know they’re going to do…

“I’m really excited. I think the Carroll-Tech rivalry is something that a lot of people know about. I think there will be a lot of people in the community that come out to watch that.”

Tavia Rooney and Brooke Heggie each average better than 11 points per game for Tech. Dani Urick and Mollie Peoples each chip in at least eight points per game and pace the roster with a combined 43 made 3-pointers this season.

Peoples, Urick, Rooney, Madison Allen and Celestina Faletoi have started the last two games for Tech. Heggie has started 10 of the 13 games she has played in, but has come off the bench in Tech’s last two games.

A couple career milestones for Carroll players are expected to be achieved on Thursday night. If Wagner plays and scores more than one point, she will become the third all-time leading scorer in Carroll women’s basketball program history, passing Catherine (Mason) Converse. Wagner currently has 1,491 career points. Mason scored 1,492 from 1992-96.

With nine more points, Wagner will also become just the third Carroll women’s basketball player to score 1,500 career points, joining Jolene Fuzesy (2,067) and Emili Woody (1,562).

If Denny and Lyman play on Thursday night, they will tie the all-time games played in a career mark in Carroll women’s basketball program history. Fuzesy holds the current mark of 139 games played, established during the 2004-08 seasons. Denny and Lyman entered this season having each played in 122 career games.

Thursday would be that pair’s 139th countable game in a Saints uniform, while Saturday’s contest would be their 140th, an all-time record.

“They’re just the warriors,” Sayers said of the seniors. “They show up everyday, they work hard. I never have to get on them about their effort, I never have to get on them about little things that we do within this program. It’s the standard that they came in and learned from those before them, and now they’re the teachers of that. To have them set the record for most games played in a Saints uniform just says so much about their commitment and their loyalty to this program, but also their impact on it.”

“Jaidyn and I have played together for a really long time,” Denny said. “I think it’s super cool that we got this fifth year to match that all-time record. It’ll be exciting.”

Carroll has played in its fair share of high-profile games, rankings-wise, this season. Still, nothing compares to conference play when execution and discipline really slingshot to the forefront of what makes teams successful.

Tip off against Tech is slated for 5 p.m. on Thursday. Carroll and Rocky Mountain will get underway at 2 p.m. on Saturday from the PE Center.

“Hopefully everybody remembers that it’s really warm in the gym,” Sayers said. “Even though it’s cold outside, when they get in the gym it’s going to be well worth their trip outside…I expect a packed house for most of our conference games. You have two teams here at Carroll in the top-5 in the country that both play a really exciting brand of basketball to watch…

“I know the players are really looking forward to it. Just to get into conference, it’s a different feel, it’s a different intensity. Even though we’ve played three top-5 teams in the nation, just the intensity switch when you get into conference is different.”

Email Daniel Shepard at daniel.shepard@406mtsports.com or find him on Twitter @IR_DanielS.

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