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A pair of close wins send women's hoops to playoffs

UMW News Bureau

On Thursday, Feb. 21, the University of Montana Western women’s basketball team was sitting on the bubble of either going to the playoffs this upcoming week or not getting into the playoffs at all.

If the team won both games they would get in, but if they lost even just one game they stood the risk of not getting in at all. Montana Western played Montana Tech and Lewis-Clark State this past weekend, and both games ended with a nail-biting win for Montana Western.

On Thursday, the Bulldogs hosted Montana Tech Orediggers, the third-ranked team in the Frontier Conference. The Orediggers previously beat the Bulldogs both times they competed this year. In a preseason game, Tech beat Montana Western 61-72. The conference game they played in Butte, Mont. in January ended much the same way with Tech on top 57-66. However, the game this past Thursday ended a bit differently.

With the lead changing 11 different times during the game, it was a close contest the entire 40 minutes. However, the Bulldogs had one of their best shooting nights to date, shooting 41 percent from the field and making almost 90 percent of their free throws to seal the win 62-60.

There were a number of girls who played well that night with all but one player scoring for the Bulldogs. Senior Alecia Wilson had one of her best games of the season, leading her team in all categories with only three assists shy of a triple-double. Wilson ended the night with 16 points, 10 rebounds, seven assists, one block, one steal and only one turnover. Sammi Bignell added 15 points while Brittney Leibenguth chipped in 10 points for the Bulldog win.

“It was fantastic to watch this team bounce back from our Carroll loss and make some plays and free throws to get the win,” head coach Lindsay Woolley said. “They showed a tremendous amount of character and you can’t say enough about the play of Brittney and Alecia. They played like seniors are supposed to play, and I was extremely proud of how we finished the game.”

One step closer to the playoffs, and on Montana Western’s senior night, the Bulldogs now faced the Lewis-Clark State Warriors. The Warriors, much like Montana Tech, also previously beat the Bulldogs in Lewiston, Idaho back in January, 60-69.

The team’s five seniors — Alecia Wilson, Brittney Leibenguth, Auna Lawler, Kassie Kerbs and Hayley Pettit — were recognized before the game started. All five of the seniors also started that night.

Bulldog head coach Lindsay Woolley talked to the head coach of Lewis-Clark State previous to the start of the game and asked if the Warriors would allow Pettit to jump for the jump ball at the start of the game, let her get the ball and score her last points as a college basketball player. Pettit, who has been out all year with a torn ACL, strapped her knee brace on, went out, jumped for the ball and tipped it to fellow senior Alecia Wilson, who gave the ball back to Pettit to score her last two points of her college and Bulldog career. After Pettit was subbed out, Montana Western allowed the Warriors to come down and make an uncontested layup to even the score out. Then the real game started.

The Warriors jumped out and were up by 14 points in the first half before the Bulldogs started to close the gap. Montana Western went into half time down by eight points. In the second half, the Bulldogs kept chipping away at the Warrior lead. The Bulldogs finally caught up and went up by one point with about eight minutes left in the contest. It was again back and forth with the lead switching twice before Montana Western found themselves down by two points with two minutes left.

Senior Brittney Leibenguth came down the floor and hit a huge three-pointer to put the Bulldogs back on top by one point. A layup by Sammi Bignell put the Bulldogs up by three points with a minute left in regulation. The Warriors came down and hit a jumper to pull back within one point with about 25 seconds left. The Warriors fouled Jenna Banks, who went to the line and knocked down both of her free throws to put the Bulldogs back up by three with 15 seconds left. After a time out, Lewis-Clark came back and ran down the floor to put up a three-pointer, which rimmed out. The Warriors got the rebound and put it back up for a made layup, but the two points were not enough; as the time ran out, the Bulldogs were on top 66-65.

“I think our kids were a little emotional at the start of the game and we didn’t play with the necessary intensity on the defensive,” Woolley said. “Lewis-Clark came out ready to play and knocked down a number of threes and we found ourselves in a pretty big hole. Luckily we performed as we have pretty much all year and fought our way back into the game. For the second night in a row we made some plays and got some huge baskets in crunch time. I think with these two wins we have shown ourselves that we can perform well late in games and I like where we are sitting heading into the playoffs. I can’t say enough good things about this group. They could have packed it in multiple times throughout the season, but they believed in each other and they never gave in. Not many teams can overcome the loss of an All-American and rally the way they did. It shows a tremendous amount of character, and I will always remember that about this group.”

Sammi Bignell led all scorers with 16 and Kaci Matthies added 12 points to the team total. Alecia Wilson had another huge night for the Bulldogs as she added another double-double to her resume. Wilson ended with 13 points, 10 rebounds six assists and one steal.

The win moved Montana Western to a 7-9 record in conference play, which placed them as the sixth seed in the playoffs. As the sixth seed, they will take on the three seed, who happens to be Montana Tech. The Bulldogs will travel to Butte, Mont. on Tuesday, Feb. 26 to play the Orediggers in the first round of the playoffs.