Chelsea Banis wanted pictures.
Pictures of her with teammates. Pictures of her with family. Pictures of her, teammates and family.
This was a moment to cherish.
Of all the players who were enjoying the Montana State Billings women’s basketball team’s first Great Northwest Athletic Conference championship last Thursday night, Banis might have treasured it the most.
Her cutting down the nets in celebration came perilously close to not happening, as it was less than a year ago that it appeared Banis' college basketball career was over.
“I was real close to not playing again,” Banis admitted. “I would have regretted it bigtime.”
Affectionately called “Grandma” by her Yellowjacket teammates, “Because I’m the oldest on the team and I like to bake … cookies and healthy dinners,” she said, Banis is proof there can be second acts in college athletics.
The 6-foot-4 former Fairfield standout began her college basketball career at Montana State.
Her best season in Bozeman ended up being her first, when she averaged 12.1 points and 5.8 rebounds a game. That included a 28-point outburst against Utah Valley. However, the season of so much potential was cut short midway by a knee injury, and Banis redshirted the following year.
It was the first of two knee surgeries, along with hip surgery, she would endure while in Bozeman. Banis played in just eight games her final season as a Bobcat.
“I had a lot of disappointment during my career,” she said. “I had a lot of injuries. Basketball, it wasn’t fun anymore.”
Banis earned her degree in community health from MSU and decided to attend MSUB to pursue a masters degree in health administration. She also had one more year of playing eligibility.
“I wanted a fresh start,” said Banis.
Banis had the skills but not the belief.
“She had lost some confidence,” MSUB coach Kevin Woodin said. “But Chelsea had to make the decision herself. I told her she needed to work in the offseason and get into basketball shape.”
Banis also got a phone call last summer from the unlikeliest of people: MSUB senior All-American Bobbi Knudsen.
Knudsen’s Malta teams and Banis’ Fairfield teams had some memorable matchups during their careers.
“We joke about it now,” Banis said.
Banis wasn’t sure what to think when Knudsen made the first call.
“During the summer Bobbi called me like we were old friends,” Banis recalled. “I was like, ‘Are we friends?’ ”
“We live together now. We put the rivalry aside,” Banis finished with a laugh.
After a slow start, Banis is averaging 10.1 points a game for the new GNAC champions. She is second on the team for rebounds and first for blocked shots.
On Tuesday, she was selected the GNAC Newcomer of the Year.
“The players accepted me from day one,” said Banis. “I started to feel comfortable (on the court) a couple of games into the conference season.
“I remember earlier in the year, I asked them, ‘What do you want me to do? Do you want me to score? Do you want me to rebound?’ They said to do my job in the moment.
“I try to bring energy, spirit to the court.”
With the ability to score from either side, the 6-4 Banis is making 56 percent of her shots, where she ranks first in the GNAC for field goal percentage. Banis has posted two double-doubles this season and scored in double figures in 18 games.
She delivered a clutch season-high 18 points, including what proved to be the game-winner in last Saturday’s win over Alaska Anchorage, to give MSUB a perfect 15-0 record at Alterowitz this season.
“I’m impressed how much she’s improved throughout the season,” Woodin said. “Chelsea didn’t have a lot of basketball experience the last couple of years.
“I think she put a little too much pressure on herself early in the year. She was the Division I transfer who was supposed to make an impact. But she didn’t have to be the superstar with this group. We have a very balanced team.”
Coupled with Kayleen Goggins in the frontcourt, the pair makes it difficult on opposing defenses. Prime example, the two combined for 38 against UAA, more than half of the Yellowjackets' points.
“She and Kayleen are getting more comfortable with each other,” Woodin continued. “With two talented players in the post, they can get things rolling around the basket.
“When you bring in a player for just one season, you worry about team chemistry. She’s been terrific. I love her sense of humor. She stepped right in. It was a win-win for both sides.”
And Banis got to experience something that eluded her in Bozeman: A conference title and potential berth in the postseason. MSUB is the No. 1 seed in this week’s GNAC tournament in Lacey, Wash. The top eight teams in the West Region poll qualify for the NCAA Division II West Region. The Yellowjackets are ranked second.
“It’s kind of weird now that you can see the end of your career,” Banis said. “I want to cherish every moment.
“I’m having the time of my life. I don’t want it to end.”