HELENA – The context of a Carroll-Rocky match up this season needed no introduction.
Defense reigned supreme.
As the No. 1 and No. 2 women's basketball teams and defenses settled the Frontier championship on Tuesday, it was the Saints who surpassed the Battlin’ Bears’ and came back to claim the title, 46-42, winning their first postseason championship since 2007.
“Unbelievable,” Saints coach Rachelle Sayers said after cutting the nets down in the PE Center for the second time in 12 days. “I cannot express how much I love this team and how much these kids have completely believed in the process and believed in each other and believed in us as coaches and an unbelievable staff.
The Saints (24-7) and Rocky (23-8) lurched through a first half that saw the Saints total as many turnovers as they had points (14). Rocky played the aggressor early, using a 10-for-10 effort from the free-throw line to lead 18-14 at halftime.
“We missed a lot of make-able shots,” Rocky coach Wes Keller said. “Instead of being up five, we should have been up double figures. Credit them. We missed. They hung around. We gave them a chance.”
Carroll tied it at 23 with five minutes remaining in the third quarter when Brittney Johnson hit a 3-pointer. After the Saints forced a turnover, Lyman hit another 3-pointer on the next possession.
Salonen closed the third quarter with a 3-pointer, the Carroll's third of the period. The Saints outscored Rocky 18-9 in the third quarter.
“Pretty soon we got back to running our offense,” Sayers said of the Saints’ breaking out of their scoring woes. “I thought Rocky did a great job the first half of getting us out of our offense. They really stalled us. It was more about the kids being more aggressive and being willing to take some risks and see what they could do.”
Carroll led 32-28 heading into the final quarter, but, just as all three of its successors did, the game would come down to the final few possessions. In three games this season, the Carroll-Rocky games had been decided by a total of 13 points.
With five minutes left, a Markaela Francis jumper tied the game at 38.
The Saints went back to Dowdy, who nailed a left handed hook shot.
Rocky guard Hailee Farstveet worked her way into the paint for a layup.
And then Dean responded with a jumper.
Johnson drilled a 3-pointer with just a few ticks left on the shot clock to give the Saints a five-point lead with 1:46 left.
Francis knocked down another jumper to trim the lead to three.
Dean blocked a Mikayla Jones 3-pointer and Carroll got the ball, drawing a foul. Freshman Christine Denny split her free throws to give the Saints a four-point lead. Carrol thwarted Rocky's final attempts.
Dean led all scorers with 15 points, and Farstveet had a team-high 13 points.
It was only fitting the championship came down to Carroll and Rocky. Both were two of the best stories in the Frontier Conference this season.
Coaches picked Rocky to finish fifth. The Battlin’ Bears had another idea, and claimed second.
The Saints were picked to finish fourth and endured the losses of Sara Chalich, Cassidy Hashley and, just two days prior to the championship, Bailey Pasta.
“What team can be picked fourth and lose three potential starters and turn around and do this,” Sayers asked rhetorically afterward. “You cannot measure these kids’ heart. I don’t even know how to explain how proud I am of them.”
Both teams will be in Billings next week. Both will learn of their NAIA tournament seeding on Wednesday.
And if both of the Frontier’s best continue to play similar brands of basketball, both could go deep in the tournament.