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Rocky's Alecia Chamberlin

Freed-Hardeman's Kim Mallory (33) and Tiffany Pate (31) block a shot by Rocky's Alecia Chamberlin (33) on in March 2017 at the NAIA D1Women's Basketball Championship at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark. RMC will host the tournament for a second year with games starting Wednesday.

HANNAH POTES, Gazette Staff

This is college basketball week for the Billings area in a big way. The 32 women’s teams competing in the Wells Fargo NAIA Division I Tournament Women’s Basketball National Championship will converge on Billings from as far away as Alabama and California. Hundreds of athletes will share their love of the sport with local students — even before the first of 31 games begins.

Area schools have volunteered to sponsor each team. Some are hosting the same college team they hosted last year, according to a news release from Kelly McCandless of Visit Billings. The Champions of Character program, sponsored by Tire-Rama-Cooper Tires, connects basketball players with schools they will visit today and Tuesday. Thanks to Tire-Rama and MetraPark, the participating school groups also are invited to attend their team’s first round games on Wednesday or Thursday. More than 1,700 students were expected to take school field trips to see their team play.

Champions of Character Billings schools are: Boulder, Bitterroot, Sandstone, Orchard, Poly Drive, Broadwater, Rose Park, Washington, Miles Avenue, Big Sky, Boulder, Meadowlark, Burlington, Beartooth, Alkali Creek, Arrowhead, Newman, Highland, McKinley, Bench and Ben Steele Middle School. In Laurel, South, West and Graff elementary schools will host teams, as will schools in Shepherd, Columbus and Blue Creek. Head Start, Special Olympics and some after-school care programs also will sponsor teams.

McCandless explained the purpose of the program is “to change the culture of sport. Its mission is to help instill the values that build character so students, coaches and parents know, do and value the right thing on and off the court. The Champions of Character program helps athletes find the balance by keeping five core values — integrity, respect, responsibility, sportsmanship and servant leadership — at the heart of the athletics experience.”

What a wonderful opportunity this tournament provides for Montana youth to meet these positive, role model college athletes.

Additional students from our region have been invited to join in SCHEELS Youth Impact Day on Friday. As of last week, MetraPark was expecting at least 800 students to watch Friday games. Many would not have been able to attend a college championship game without this youth day sponsorship.

The elementary students will add to the excitement of a tournament that features four Montana women’s basketball teams:

  • University of Montana Western from Dillon is set to meet Dillard of Louisiana at 1:45 p.m. Wednesday in the Rimrock Auto Arena.
  • Rocky Mountain College, the host team, will play Science & Arts of Oklahoma at 8 p.m. Wednesday.
  • Providence (formerly Great Falls University) is matched with Oklahoma City at 2:15 p.m. Thursday.
  • Carroll College of Helena meets William Penn of Iowa at 8 p.m. Thursday.

From the first game at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday to the last game on Thursday at 9:45 p.m., basketball fans will be treated to high-level athletic competition in 16 first-round games. The NAIA bracket includes eight second-round games on Friday and four third-round games on Saturday. The final four will play semi-finals Monday evening, and the championship game will be broadcast live on ESPN3, starting at 7 p.m. the next day, March 20.

Along with congratulations to the players and coaches who have earned a berth in this national championship, a round of applause is due the many local businesses, individuals and schools that stepped up to sponsor portions of this nine-day sports event. Rocky Mountain College, Visit Billings, Billings Chamber of Commerce, MetraPark and the Billings Tourism Improvement District are among the local organizations who have brought the championship to Billings for a second year.

Welcome to Billings, NAIA teams and fans. Play your best games. Please take time to enjoy our city and come back anytime.