The anticipation was almost tougher than any game.
Fifteen Montana State Billings women’s basketball players, all wearing their “Team First” T-shirts, leaned forward in their chairs, raptly watching the NCAA Division II Tournament show.
Four regions were announced, followed by a short break, which brought a collective groan from the Yellowjackets.
“I was sweating pretty bad,” admitted Bobbi Knudsen, the reigning Great Northwest Athletic Conference player of the year.
After an anxious wait, the West Region bracket appeared and the players leaned in even closer.
A loud cheer erupted when the Yellowjackets showed up as the No. 2 seed.
MSUB will open the West Region tournament in Pomona, Calif., on Friday against No. 7 seed Academy of Art. Both teams are 23-7. Academy of Art is located in San Francisco.
“It means a lot,” Knudsen said of her first NCAA tournament. She is the only four-year player on the Yellowjackets roster. “This is what you strive for every year.
“But this is not the end. We still have a lot to do.”
The Yellowjackets earned an at-large bid, while the Urban Knights received one of the region’s automatic berths by winning the PacWest Conference title.
MSUB won the GNAC regular-season championship.
The eight-team regional will be played Friday, Saturday and Monday. The winner advances to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight in Erie, Pa.
Host Cal Poly Pomona is the top seed.
It is the second time the Yellowjackets have been the No. 2 seed, joining the 1998-99 team that reached the Elite Eight.
“To get a No. 2 seed is quite an honor,” said MSUB coach Kevin Woodin, making his third trip to the NCAA Division II postseason as a head coach. He also was an assistant coach for the Yellowjackets for two others.
“It’s great feeling especially for the seniors (Knudsen, Austin Hanser, Chelsea Banis). And it’s great for Bobbi, who has put so much into this program. We’ve been so close the last three years, just one or two wins away.”
It is MSUB’s first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2007 when it played in the South Central Region as a member of the Heartland Conference.
MSUB is one of four GNAC teams represented, joined by GNAC tournament champion Western Washington, along with Simon Fraser and Alaska Anchorage.
The game between No. 3 Simon Fraser and No. 6 Western Washington is a rematch of the GNAC tournament championship game. WWU won 78-74.
“I think the region is very balanced,” Woodin added. “The team that plays its best for three games will advance. We have a great opportunity in front of us.”
MSUB and Academy of Art have never met.
The Urban Knights won 11 in a row during one stretch this season and have won 13 of their last 14 games.
After starting 6-5, the team is 17-2 since the addition of 6-foot-4 sophomore Krystal Forthan, a transfer from Louisiana State University. She is averaging 19.5 points and 12.5 rebounds a game since joining the team Dec. 21. She has posted 16 double-doubles, including the last 15 games in a row. Forthan had 28 points and 14 rebounds in Academy of Art’s 88-76 win over Cal Baptist in the PacWest championship game.