Jacket women begin GNAC title chase

2014-03-06T20:30:00Z 2014-03-07T00:52:04Z Jacket women begin GNAC title chaseBy JOE KUSEK jkusek@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

They won the regular-season title, just like the league coaches said they would.

And rightfully, they dominated the postseason awards.

Now they’re playing for the biggest prize: a Great Northwest Athletic Conference tournament title.

The top-seeded Montana State Billings (23-6) women’s basketball team will play No. 4 seed Simon Fraser (18-8) on Friday at 8:30 p.m. in one semifinal of the GNAC tournament at Lacey, Wash.

The other semifinal features No. 6 Saint Martin’s (18-10) taking on No. 2 seed Western Washington (17-9).

The championship game is Saturday at 8:30 p.m.

The winner gets the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA Division II West Region tournament.

Three conference champions — GNAC, PacWest and California Collegiate Athletic Association — will earn automatic berths into the West Region, with the other five determined by the West Region poll.

The Yellowjackets are currently ranked No. 1 in the region.

“We’re playing with a lot of confidence,” said MSUB coach Kevin Woodin, who earlier in the week was selected the GNAC coach of the year. “We have great team chemistry.

“This group has as strong a bond as any team I’ve ever had as a coach.”

The Yellowjackets defeated Simon Fraser twice during the regular season, 81-63 and 76-61.

“I think we have to keep doing the things that have gotten us to this point,” Woodin said. “We’ve consistently been one of the top rebounding teams in the league and we’ve done a good job of protecting the ball this season.

“At this time of year, you’re not going to make any big changes.”

But knee injuries to starters Annie DePuydt and Janiel Olson have forced Woodin to shuffle his lineup. DePuydt is out for the season, while Woodin is hoping that Olson could possibly play in the West Region. Olson, a junior from Billings West, leads the GNAC in rebounding and was selected the league’s defensive player of the year.

“I’m proud of them,” Woodin said of his team. “They’ve shown a lot of resiliency.

“We’ve had to do some adjusting. But the players we have, have done a good job of stepping up their games.”

Freshman Alisha Breen has averaged 12.5 points in the last four games, scoring in double figures in all four. Senior Austin Hanser has also stepped into a starting role with solid play.

The catalyst is GNAC player of the year Bobbi Knudsen. The senior All-American from Malta, is averaging 17 points and a GNAC-best 5.9 assists a game. She had games of 16 and 21 points in the wins over SFU.

With 168 3-pointers, Knudsen ranks fifth all-time at MSUB, while teammate Quinn Peoples is sixth with 164. Knudsen is also the second-leading scorer in program history.

Kayleen Goggins, an all-GNAC selection, is averaging 10.8 points a game, while Chelsea Banis is adding 10.1. Banis was chosen the GNAC Newcomer of the Year.

“I really like their mental toughness,” Woodin said of his team. “They have learned the value of every possession. They’ve learned to lay it on the line because you don’t know which possession will matter the most in the game.”

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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