BILLINGS — A Montana State Billings tradition nearly cost the women’s basketball team a rivalry win.

The MSUB women were hosting Rocky Mountain College on Thursday night. As they do every year, the Yellowjackets donned old Eastern Montana College jerseys for EMC throwback night.

The uniforms are black with gold trim and include player numbers sandwiched between the words “Eastern Montana” on the front of the jerseys. MSUB junior guard Hannah Collins likes their color and “retro” look, she said.

There’s one problem: the numbers and the “Eastern Montana” are black with gold outlining. A rule prohibits numbers from being the same color as the jerseys, according to MSUB head coach Kevin Woodin, so the referees issued a technical foul to the Yellowjackets before the opening tipoff. Rocky junior Destinee Pointer made both technical free throws.

“It was the right call,” Woodin said. “We wanted to honor our tradition, so it’s OK.”

Thursday’s exhibition game teetered back and forth all four quarters, amplifying the importance of Pointer’s free throws. Fortunately for the Jackets, they defeated the Battlin’ Bears 69-65 in front of 1,012 spectators at Alterowitz Gymnasium.

“Hopefully we can find somebody to buy us some new (jerseys) so it will be legal,” Woodin said with a smile. “But I think we’ll start it that way again if that’s what we have to do.”

Rocky won last year’s EMC throwback night 65-50 and prevailed 66-65 on Nov. 6. The second score is a bit misleading. The Battlin’ Bears led that entire game and went ahead by as many as 14 points in the first quarter.

Friday’s game was legitimately close from start to finish, with eight lead changes and a scoring margin that didn’t exceed five points until the fourth quarter. When MSUB built a seven-point cushion late in the fourth, the Bears cut the deficit to 68-65 with 1:34 left.

The Yellowjackets held on, and they spoiled perhaps the best game of Markaela Francis’ Rocky career. The senior post from Great Falls scored a career-high 32 points on efficient shooting (10 of 12 from the field, 1 of 1 from 3-point range, 11 of 14 from the free-throw line), and she grabbed 10 rebounds.

Francis’ teammates combined to score 33 points while shooting 12 of 40 (30%) on field goals and 3 of 16 (18.8%) on 3s.

“Markaela was a beast tonight,” said Rocky coach Wes Keller. “We’ve gotta have some other kids step up.”

Despite Francis’ dominance, the Jackets decided to go small in the fourth quarter. A lineup of Collins (5-foot-5), freshman Danielle Zahn (5-5), senior Jeanann Lemelin (5-6), senior Taylor Cunningham (5-11) and freshman Shayla Montague (5-11) turned a two-point deficit into a seven-point lead, the largest advantage by either team all night.

“We went to, really, four perimeter players, a lot more than we have,” Woodin said. “That was critical to our success.”

The Jackets shot 45.3% from the field and 38.1% from 3, and three players scored in double figures. Collins (7 of 14 from the field, 2 of 5 from 3) and Cunningham (6 of 11, 3 of 5) each tallied 19 points, and Lemelin, a Billings Senior graduate, finished with 14 (4 of 12, 2 of 4).

Cunningham grabbed a team-high nine boards, and Rocky sophomore Kloie Thatcher (a Butte Central grad) dished out a game-high seven assists.

The Bears committed 16 turnovers, while MSUB finished with 11.

“Every time we play them, it’s pretty much a close game, so we know it’s gonna be a battle,” Collins said of the Bears. “I’m just happy we came out on top.”

MSUB (5-5) will host Dickinson State on Sunday. Rocky (6-2) will return to NAIA play on Thursday against Our Lady of the Lake at the Cactus Classic in Chandler, Arizona.

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Email Victor Flores at victor.flores@406mtsports.com and follow him on Twitter at @VictorFlores_BG

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