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Rocky Mountain College players chat and eat pizza

Rocky Mountain College women's basketball players, from left, Brandy Kumm, Justyn Juhl and Alecia Chamberlin enjoy pizza and chat together after finding out they will play No. 1-ranked Freed-Hardeman next Wednesday in the first round of the NAIA National Tournament at Rimrock Auto Arena.

They sat in chairs, eating pizza and chatting among themselves.

The screen flashed what they had been waiting for – their game was announced first – and resumed eating and talking.

It was a subdued response to the biggest game of their collegiate careers.

“It wasn’t news, really,” Hailee Farstveet said. “We already knew that we were in and pretty much knew who we were going to play.”

The Rocky Mountain College women’s basketball team will literally step into the lion’s den when it opens the NAIA Division I National Tournament against Freed-Hardeman on Wednesday, March 15, at Rimrock Auto Arena. The game will start at 8 p.m.

The Lady Lions (33-0) are the unanimous No. 1-ranked team in the country and the only unbeaten team in the field.

The Battlin’ Bears (13-18) knew they would be playing in the national tournament last Labor Day, when it was announced that Billings would host the 32-team event. Rocky gets an automatic berth as host school.

The Battlin’ Bears only other appearance in the national tournament was in 1988.

Rocky will be joined by Lewis-Clark State, Montana State-Northern and Montana Western of the Frontier Conference.

Montana Western will play Columbia (Mo.) on Wednesday at 5:45 p.m. Lewis-Clark State, ranked No. 2 nationally, plays William Penn (Iowa) on Thursday at 12:30 p.m. Montana State-Northern (23-8) is playing Loyola (La.) at 8 p.m. on Thursday.

There will be 31 games in six days – everybody has Sunday off -- with the national championship game Tuesday, March 21. A team must win five games to be national champion.

Freed-Hardeman, located in Henderson, Tenn., has not lost since falling to eventual national champion MidAmerica Nazarene (Kan.) in the second round of last year’s tournament.

The Pioneers return to defend their title. MidAmerica Nazarene opens against eight-time national champion Oklahoma City on Wednesday.

Freed-Hardeman is making its 21st all-time and 21st consecutive national championship appearance, the longest active streak in NAIA Division I women’s basketball. The Lady Lions have reached the semifinals four of the last six seasons, including a runner-up finish in 2014.

“We see this as an opportunity,” Rocky senior guard Jayde LeFevre said. “We’ve been watching film of them. We hope to be overlooked because of our record.”

The Battlin’ Bears and Lions share two common opponents: Montana State-Northern and Central Baptist.

Rocky beat the Skylights in two of three meetings this year and defeated Central Baptist 86-47 on Nov. 5, 2016, in Havre. Freed-Hardeman beat MSU-Northern 65-56 in November, and trounced Central Baptist 81-33 and 94-40 in American Midwest Conference play.

The Lady Lions are led by guard Taleeah Cross, the two-time AMC player of the year. She is averaging 17.2 points a game and ranks eighth nationally in assists (148). Cross had a career-high 32 points in the AMC title win against Lyon (Ark.).

Teammate Kim Mallory was the league’s defensive player of the year. The junior is averaging 16.4 points and 8.6 rebounds a game.

“We’ve known who we were going to play for quite a while. It was not a huge shock for us,” Rocky head coach Wes Keller said.

Keller was an assistant coach for the Rocky men’s team that won the national championship in 2009. The Battlin’ Bears opened that tournament against Freed-Hardeman.

“It’s an unbelievable experience for the student-athlete,” Keller said of the tournament. “When you get here, it doesn’t matter what your record is. Everybody is 0-0. It’s win or go home.”

NOTES: Carroll, Montana Western and Lewis-Clark State will play in the NAIA Division I Men’s National Tournament in Kansas City.

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High School Sports, Rodeo Reporter

Sports writer for The Billings Gazette.