Playing tough teams is nothing new for the Rocky Mountain College women’s basketball team.
It’s called the Frontier Conference regular season.
On Wednesday night at Rimrock Auto Arena, the Battlin’ Bears will face their toughest challenge, opening the 37th Annual NAIA Division I Women’s National Tournament against No. 1-ranked Freed-Hardeman of Tennessee.
The 32-team tournament has eight first-round games Wednesday and eight Thursday, all beginning at 8 a.m.
The tournament will conclude with Tuesday’s national title game. A team must win five games to claim the championship.
Rocky (13-18) is one of four Frontier Conference teams in the field. The Battlin’ Bears are joined by Lewis-Clark State (31-1), Montana State-Northern (23-8) and Montana Western (23-8). L-C State is the No. 2-ranked team in the country. The Skylights are No. 11 and the Bulldogs No. 21.
Montana Western opens Wednesday against Columbia (Mo.) at 5:45 p.m.
Both Lewis-Clark State and Montana State-Northern play Thursday.
Rocky is making its second appearance. The first was in 1988.
“In my opinion, our conference is the toughest or at least one of the top two in the nation, from top to bottom,” Rocky head coach Wes Keller said. “There are no nights off in the Frontier Conference.
“And I think that’s going to help us on March 15 at 8 p.m.”
Freed-Hardeman (33-0) is the only undefeated team in the field. The Lady Lions have reached the NAIA tournament semifinals four of the last six years, including a runner-up finish in 2014.
The two schools share some NAIA tournament history. The Rocky men opened the NAIA tournament against Freed-Hardeman en route to the national championship in 2009. Keller was an assistant coach for the Battlin’ Bears.
Both teams played Montana State-Northern and Central Baptist during the regular season. Both easily defeated Central Baptist; the Lady Lions defeated the Skylights 65-56 early in the season. Rocky won two of three against MSU-Northern.
The Battlin’ Bears lost to L-C State by margins of five, 10 and five this year and twice lost by single digits to Montana Western.
“Playing tough teams has helped us,” Rocky’s Jayde LeFevre said. “It will help us match their intensity. We know this is a tough game. We know we have to work hard. That every play will matter.”
LeFevre, a senior from Laurel, has made at least one 3-pointer in 29 games this season and has 132 for her career.
Rocky is led by junior Hailee Farstveet, who is averaging 10.5 points and leads the team in assists. Freshman Markaela Francis has posted double-doubles (points-rebounds) in three of the last five games.
“It’s been a turbulent season,” said Keller, alluding to his team losing three starters to injuries. “We’ve had a lot of ups and downs. This team has been battle tested.”
The Lady Lions feature senior guard Taleeah Cross, the two-time American Midwest Conference Player of the Year. Cross, who averages 17.2 points a game, dropped a career-high 32 against No. 10 Lyons in the AMC title game. She ranks eighth nationally for assists (148) and has 2,068 career points.
Teammate Kim Mallory, who averaged 16.4 points and 8.6 rebounds, was chosen the AMC Defensive Player of the Year. Tiffany Pate ranks third nationally in blocked shots.
Freed-Hardeman is outscoring opponents by an average of 30 points a game (79.9-49.9). The points allowed is second-best in the nation.
“We have to control the tempo,” Keller said. “They are well coached and have arguably the best point guard in the country. They are a team that can play about any style.”
NOTES: This is Freed-Hardeman’s 21st consecutive appearance in the NAIA national tournament, which is the longest active streak in Division I women’s basketball. ... The Lady Lions are 32-20 in tourney play. Their last loss was 59-51 to eventual national champion MidAmerica Nazarene in the second round last season.