BILLINGS — Alisha Breen was not going to let her career be defined by “What-if?”
When Breen tore the ACL of her left knee on Nov. 4, 2016 against Montana Tech, the injury ended her season but it did not end her career.
It just put her on a new path to one of the greatest individual seasons by a Montana State Billings women’s basketball player.
Which is a fitting finish to one of the greatest careers by a Yellowjacket from a program bursting with outstanding players.
As Breen and her teammates prepare for this week’s Great Northwest Athletic Conference Tournament in Alaska and possible postseason beyond, the numbers she has accumulated just tells a small portion of her story. It’s a story that includes injuries, a devastating rejection, the help of many and a willingness to push herself beyond set limits, all built off a rock-solid work ethic formed at a young age.
And the most important element, a competitive fire, that even she admits, that burns white-hot.
“Probably detrimental,” Breen says with a smile of her desire to win … in everything.
“She has a fire,” added MSUB women’s basketball coach Kevin Woodin. “We all like to win, but with her, it’s a little different.”
A strong, versatile 5-foot-10 forward from Choteau, the 23-year-old Breen is averaging a GNAC-best 20.8 points and 9.7 rebounds per game this season. She has scored in double figures in every game this year with 14 double-doubles (points-rebounds). Breen has been selected the GNAC Player of the Week a league-record five times.
Her 625 points ranks third-best all-time for a single season.
Against Simon Fraser last week, Breen became the only player in GNAC history to have more than 1,800 points and 800 rebounds. Not afraid of contact — “I’ve always been a physical player,” — Breen also holds the MSUB record for free throws made and free throws attempted.
“Spin the ball, dribble three times, take a step back and shoot it,” she said of her free throw routine that makes those points almost automatic.
It’s hard to believe somebody took a pass on her talent.
Work came young for the four children — J.T., Kaycee, Alisha and Liam — of Jerry and Kayla Breen. The family owns a handful of businesses in the town of 1,700 located 20 miles from the Rocky Mountains, including a convenience store and oil and tire operation.
Alisha Breen says she can still toss tires and paint propane tanks when needed.
As a young girl, she played baseball with the boys. “I didn’t want to be the worst player out there,” Breen said.
Breen also spent countless hours in the high school gym, “We live two blocks away.” She tells the story of her younger brother Liam leaving her there, not wanting to lose to his sister in their many games of one-on-one.
And family board games? Sometimes, that board might go airborne.
An all-state basketball player for Choteau, she began garnering attention from college coaches starting her freshman season.
She verbally committed to Idaho State the summer before her senior year, but the Vandals withdrew the offer just a few weeks later.
“I was devastated,” Breen said. “That was hard, really hard. I had my heart set on it. I had to start over from square one. You start questioning yourself, if you’ll ever get another offer. My family, we didn’t know much about the recruiting process.”
She continues to play with that chip on her shoulder.
Breen’s high school career, she graduated from Choteau in 2013, was also hampered by injuries. Breen broke her left wrist her freshman year and dislocated her shoulder for the first time her sophomore volleyball season. The shoulder situation became chronic, requiring surgery after her senior year. Breen missed playing in the Montana-Wyoming All-Star basketball series.
The rehabilitation process for each injury piqued her interest in physical therapy, something the health and human performance major plans on pursuing following graduation in May.
“It’s hard to believe it’s almost over,” Breen said of her collegiate basketball career.
Choteau boys basketball coach Matt Luedtke told then MSUB assistant coach Nate Harris that Breen was still looking for a place to play. And three-time All-American Bobbi Knudsen got a hold of Breen’s phone number to tell her about the Yellowjackets.
Breen committed to MSUB in October but had to call Woodin the following spring about her shoulder surgery. “I was so nervous,” she said.
“This was a good decision (coming to Billings). Being here the last five years has been life changing. The players welcomed me with open arms.”
Her college basketball education came fast and furious.
“Four straight times, I didn’t get it past half court,” Breen reflected of her first open gym. “Bobbi told me it was going to help me get better. I knew I was coming into a good program. I wasn’t sure if I was going to make a difference as a freshman, but the opportunity to play was there.”
With season-ending injuries to Janiel Olson and Annie DePuydt, Breen started the last seven games of her freshman season, helping MSUB reach the championship game of the NCAA West Regional and the final 16 of the NCAA Division II national tournament.
She earned honorable mention honors as a sophomore and first-team all-GNAC honors as a junior. Breen was selected a preseason All-American and the GNAC Player of the Year in 2016.
“Alisha can play any position on the court,” said Woodin. “You want the ball in her hands a lot. My job is to get her the ball in the middle of the floor as much as possible.
“She’s just so competitive … whether it’s a game or a drill. And she communicates better than any player I’ve ever coached She is constantly engaged in the game. You see her work so hard, you want to coach her harder and her teammates want to play harder.”
Breen was ready for her senior season.
“I had worked hard,” she said.
It all changed in the second game.
Breen shuffled to her left on defense against the Orediggers and fell down. She left the court on her own power, “I refused help off the court,” Breen said. She returned to the game a while later. When she stepped back to create space on a defender, her left leg gave out.
“I couldn’t stand up,” Breen remembered.
She tore the ACL of her left knee. Season over.
Ironically, her family had planned a trip to California to watch her and the team play a week later. Breen made the trip but did not play. She had surgery when MSUB got back to Billings.
“I had such high expectations,” Breen said. “And it was gone so fast. It made me really appreciate about being able to play. That I would not take anything for granted.
“There was never a question of not coming back. I knew I would. I’m too competitive. I had too many goals.”
From the Yellowjackets’ bench, she used the time to watch the game from a different perspective, to learn things that would help her the following year.
“When Alisha was out, I knew it was hard for her,” Woodin said. “She watched the game and became a better player from it.”
Woodin and Breen also biked together, working out side-by-side on stationary bikes. “I lost 40 pounds,” said the coach. “It was our time to communicate.”
Ever the competitor, Breen would lean over, see Woodin’s progress and offer, “You can do better.”
And Breen began the rehab process under the watchful eye of MSUB athletic trainer Lindsay Sullivan. Breen turned every drill into a personal challenge.
Can’t do lower body weight work? She pushed herself to set personal bests during upper body weight training sessions.
“I’m stronger than I’ve ever been,” said Breen. “I wanted to get back to my old self.”
She also had other motivation.
“I didn’t want people looking back and saying, ‘What if she hadn’t gotten hurt?’ “ said Breen firmly. “I didn’t want to be defined by that in any way.”
One last go
Breen returned home to Choteau last summer but didn’t stop working.
She would shoot with Luedtke in the high school gym at 7 a.m., lift weights with her uncle Perry Breen and be back in the gym at 10 a.m. Breen worked the 1 to 10 p.m. shift at the family convenience store, then later switched to another job that began later in the day.
Breen continued her offseason work after returning to school in the fall.
“She’s always in the gym,” said Woodin.
Breen was selected the GNAC Preseason Player of the Year a second straight year and has lived up to the hype.
“I had high expectations this season. I didn’t want to be a letdown to anybody,” she said.
The extra workout sessions included games of P-I-G with Evan O’Kelly, the MSUB director of communications. James Carlin, the operations manager, would serve as Breen’s rebounder during her home pregame ritual that included watching the Disney film “Hercules,” and a song list that included “Underdog” by Aaron Watson.
“It’s mostly country. I’m from Montana,” Breen said with a chuckle of her musical preferences.
The last one out during warm-ups, Breen comes to the bench at the 1:20 mark to high-five the coaches.
Then it’s time to play.
“Alisha has a confidence about her that’s contagious to everybody,” Woodin said.
And Woodin offers a friendly warning about Breen.
“Don’t be fooled by the smile,” he said, breaking into a grin. “She’ll shake your hand and say, ‘Nice game.’ But she wants to beat you.”