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Montana State women win Big Sky Conference championship, advance to NCAA Tournament

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Posted at 3:00 PM, Mar 11, 2022

BOISE, Idaho -- The Montana State women's basketball team never got a chance to take the court in the 2020 Big Sky Conference Tournament championship game due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But on Friday afternoon in Boise, the Bobcats took full advantage of their latest opportunity.

Photos: Montana State women's basketball wins Big Sky championship

No. 2 Montana State defeated No. 4 Northern Arizona 75-64 to win the Big Sky championship and advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2017.

Darian White finished with 17 points, Leia Beattie added 16 and Kola Bad Bear scored 13 points for MSU.

"For Blaire (Braxton), Fallyn (Freije), Martha (Kuderer), Madeline (Smith) and Oliana (Squires), I don't know if you're watching this. Just wanted to say that we got redemption," White said, honoring the seniors from the 2020 team. "You guys are always in our hearts and our minds and so we finally got the championship that we've always dreamed of and I know COVID took it away that freshman year for us but I'm really happy that we got this redemption I hope you guys are watching this."

The Bobcats trailed 13-6 early in the first quarter but eventually found their offensive groove and led 28-21 at half.

They ballooned that lead into a 51-36 advantage late in the third quarter, but NAU responded and went on a 17-0 run to take a 53-51 lead early in the fourth quarter.

However, White took over and scored the next eight Bobcat points as MSU retook the lead and held on down the stretch.

The tears flowed and the hugs were long as the Bobcats were awarded the Big Sky title after reaching that mountaintop once again.

"It feels amazing, I can't even describe the feeling. Personally I've never won a high school championship or state title so this is everything I've ever dreamed of and as a little girl this is all you ever want you know?" said Bad Bear, a Billings Senior High graduate. "And now we're going dancing so it's just feels very rewarding.

"Basketball is a game that it's hard, tears, sweat, everything. It's a mental game too and I think this is very rewarding and I think our team and our coaches deserve it."

NAU finishes the season 17-14 under Havre native Loree Payne, who is in her fifth year as head coach of the program. The Lumberjacks were playing in their first championship game since 2007.

The Bobcats improved to 22-12 but it hasn't always been easy. After a 1-5 start to the season, MSU got back on track and went 14-6 in Big Sky Conference play.

"That squad was a very special squad and we obviously want to honor them as well and also want to celebrate this year's team and their accomplishments of a very difficult preseason schedule that challenged us," MSU head coach Tricia Binford said. "It was rocky, we went through some storms and they found a way to grow up together and lean into each other. It's been a long couple of years with COVID and all those sorts of things and I think you need to surround yourself with really special people and this is a really special group that serves and lifts each other up and they had a great reward today."

The Bobcats will now get set for the NCAA Tournament as they head back to the biggest college basketball tournament of the year for the second time in five years.

"The season has been long, it's a mental game for sure especially once February comes," Bad Bear said. "You're traveling a lot, you're missing school and you're just feeling really overwhelmed and not seeing family as much. I think, shoutout to every basketball player, winter sport player. Basketball is a year-round sport and I just think prioritizing your mental health especially during the season and in a drought.

"Especially early on when we weren't doing too well, no one would've thought we'd be here but look at us now. Just like our hashtag, just prove it and we're proving it."