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Jackets Hannah Collins drive

Hannah Collins of Montana State Billings splits the Valley City State defense on Friday. The sophomore point guard leads the Yellowjackets in scoring, 3-pointers, assists and steals early in the season.

BILLINGS -- Kevin Woodin offered a friendly warning.

“Buckle up,” said the Montana State Billings women’s basketball coach with smile.

After watching Hannah Collins earn her learner’s permit last season with some big-time performances, Woodin made it official when the Yellowjackets began practice in October.

“She has the keys to the car now,” the coach added.

Fast and fearless, Collins is the new point guard for a very balanced MSUB offense.

Through the first four official games of the season, the 5-foot-5 sophomore is averaging almost 18 points a game. That includes a career-high 29 in the opener against the University of Providence. She also leads the team in 3-pointers, assists and steals. Collins has made 19 of 21 free throws (90.5 percent) and is making 50 percent (10 of 20) of her 3-point attempts.

Collins’ quickness gives MSUB another gear when it shifts into an up-tempo offense.

“Her speed is a game-changer,” said Woodin.

A former standout for Great Falls High, Collins was idling in neutral in the early part of last season. She was playing fewer than 11 minutes a game in the first 15 games.

“It was a difficult transition from high school to college. It was part of a new journey,” Collins said. “There is a huge difference in the defense from high school to college. With college, there are more schemes, defenses based on personnel. And the physicality of the game was an adjustment.

“It was a matter of getting more comfortable. My teammates helped me a lot. They propped me up. I knew coming to college I was not going to play right away. When I did get in, I tried to make an impact the best I could. Try to make the most of my minutes.”

She had a high of 15 points against Central Washington during the regular season, making all three 3-point attempts.

With a need for more speed as the postseason approached, Woodin increased Collins' minutes. She averaged 31.2 minutes a game as the Yellowjackets won the Great Northwest Athletic Conference title, the NCAA Division II West Region championship, and played in the Elite Eight for the second time in program history.

“During the year, against teams like Northwest Nazarene, Seattle Pacific and Saint Martin’s, they all had team speed,” said Woodin. “We had good speed, but Hannah was able to stay alongside them.”

Woodin put Collins on the wing, pairing her with Rylee Kane, one of the best point guards in program history. That gave the Yellowjackets more options when bringing the ball up court and offensive spacing.

Collins was at her best when the stakes were the highest.

“Coach called my number and told me to be ready,” she said.

Collins had 13 points in 35 minutes in the GNAC title game against Seattle Pacific and had 12 points in 33 minutes in the West Region championship game against Alaska Anchorage.

More importantly was the timing of her points. She made four free throws in the final 38 seconds of the game against SPU and scored seven fourth-quarter points against the Seawolves.

“Make big plays on a big stage. It’s every athlete’s dream,” said Collins.

Collins worked on her game this summer and continued when school started. “She’s always in the gym in the morning,” Woodin said.

Collins is also back to playing point guard.

“I do. I’m not going to lie,” Collins said of liking directing traffic again. “My job is to make sure my teammates get the ball and get everybody involved.

“I’m more of a leader by example. I’m working on being more of a vocal leader.”

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Email Joe Kusek at joe.kusek@406mtsports.com or follow him on Twitter at @GazSportsJoe

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