HELENA -- Before two of the top defenses in the NAIA lock up to determine the Frontier Conference on Tuesday at 7 p.m. in the PE Center, the Carroll College Saints already suffered heartbreak.
Senior guard Bailey Pasta injured her knee in the Saints’ tight win over Lewis-Clark State College in the semifinals. The senior leader – whose exact value for the Saints goes far beyond stats and on-court production – is expected to be done for the season.
It created a reality over two days that the Saints hadn’t needed to consider all season: How to win without Pasta.
“We’re going to have to figure some things out if we don’t have Bailey,” Saints coach Rachelle Sayers said. “I know one thing: These kids will come ready to play and they’re going to fight hard and play their tails off. They’re going to give us everything they got. It’s our job to get them in positions to be successful.”
Finding ways to be successful in the face of adversity has been the Saints’ greatest strength this season. Carroll entered the year knowing they would be without All-American Cassidy Hashley. A few weeks into the season, they lost redshirt junior guard Sara Chalich to injury.
Mixing and matching the remaining pieces over the course of nearly five months, the Saints did something they had not since 2004-05: win the Frontier Conference regular season title.
If there’s a team that, within a few days, can figure out how to continue winning, it’s Carroll. Pasta’s 10 points per game are gone, but the Saints have received huge contributions from up and down the lineup this season. Freshman guards Christine Denny and Jaidyn Lyman are capable producers should they be called in to take Pasta’s minutes.
All that’s on the line is an automatic qualifier for nationals, not that either team desperately needs it. The Battlin’ Bears are already qualified as the host of the tournament. And Carroll likely, too, is qualified with its No. 11 ranking. A championship does, however, sweeten the pot when the time comes to tournament seeding.
The fourth meeting between the two teams is likely to follow the same script from the regular season: a defensive squeeze until the final horn – and then maybe one or two overtime periods.
Carroll won the regular season series 2-1, with both wins coming in overtime. Rocky won the final meeting between the two squads in Helena on Jan. 27, a 58-50 victory. But this is the postseason, and the first time the two teams have met there since 2012.
Carroll and Rocky are two of the best stories to come out of the Frontier this season. The Saints overcame injuries en route to a regular season title, and Rocky seemingly came out of nowhere.
After going 13-19 in 2016-17 during an injury-riddled season, many expected the Battlin’ Bears to endure a similar season, injuries aside. Coaches picked them to finish fifth, a spot behind Carroll. Turns out, there are no prophets in the Frontier.
Even Nostradamus couldn’t have seen Brooke Jones’ impact coming.
The junior forward, who once suited up for the purple and gold, has been among Rocky’s biggest contributors each night. Between her and Mikaela Jones’ scoring in the backcourt, the Battlin’ Bears as a unit have been balanced and gritty on defense.
Rocky defeated Montana Tech and then Montana Western to arrive in the title game.
Only one team can further their story on Tuesday.