BILLINGS — Less than three weeks ago, the postseason hopes of the Montana State Billings basketball team were more than a little wobbly.
The Yellowjackets had dropped back-to-back games, including a disheartening loss to Western Oregon in their final home game, followed by a three-point loss at Simon Fraser.
“At that point, we weren’t talking about regionals,” said MSUB coach Kevin Woodin. “We knew we would be around No. 8 (in the West Region poll) and that’s an uncomfortable position.”
Three automatic qualifiers, along with the remaining top eight teams in the final poll qualify for the NCAA Division II West Region.
The Yellowjackets righted themselves with a win at Western Washington, then reeled off three straight victories in Anchorage, Alaska, to win their first GNAC Tournament title.
En route to the GNAC championship, MSUB defeated Northwest Nazarene and Seattle Pacific, two teams that had swept the Yellowjackets during the regular season.
MSUB (21-11) will be trying to extend its revenge tour Friday, playing 19th-ranked Hawaii Pacific (26-3) in the first round of the NCAA West Region tournament.
The game on the campus of Azusa Pacific, begins at 3:30 p.m.
The Sharks are the No. 2 seed, while the Yellowjackets are the No. 7 seed.
The winner of the eight-team regional will advance to the NCAA DII Elite Eight in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
MSUB is playing in the NCAA DII Tournament a third time in five years and the 14th time in program history. It is their fifth road trip in six weeks.
“I don’t sense any fatigue,” said Woodin.
The game against HPU is a rematch between the Great Northwest Athletic Conference tournament champion and the PacWest tournament champion. The Sharks defeated the Yellowjackets 79-52 on Dec. 19, 2017 in Honolulu.
“We did not play well,” remembered senior point guard Rylee Kane. “We struggled against them. They’re really athletic … really athletic. It doesn’t matter which five they have in there.
“We’re playing much better now. We’re communicating better on defense. If we take care of our business, we’ll be OK.”
Kane is one of six Yellowjackets with NCAA Tournament experience. The six includes senior Alisha Breen, the GNAC player of the year and GNAC Tournament MVP. Breen, of Choteau, has scored 20 or more points in 10 consecutive games.
With 24 points in the GNAC Tournament title game, Breen now has the MSUB single-season record with 702. The previous record was 691 by Shelley Altrogge, who did it twice.
Breen is the only player in MSUB history to rank in the career top-10 for points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots.
“I think we have the important pieces to be successful,” Woodin said. “We have a very good point guard in Rylee who has elevated her game down the stretch. And we have a dynamic player in Alisha. She is such a great leader. The others have become comfortable in their roles to help the team win.”
HPU features four players averaging in double figures, led by Jessi Reeves’ 12.5 points a game. Alysha Marucci and Janessa Manzano have combined to make 169 3-pointers this season.
The teams are 2-2 in the all-time series with all four games being played in Honolulu.