Mady Skawinski (CMR) scored a game high 20 points against Great Falls High. (TOM WYLIE/MTN Sports)

GREAT FALLS – Changing the culture of the Great Falls CMR girls basketball program has taken some time.

The Rustlers have had middling success the past few years, seemingly never able to build consistent momentum to become one of the elite teams in the Eastern AA. CMR isn’t all the way there just yet, but coach Brian Crosby’s team is trending up in the conference after an impressive road split last weekend, losing at Bozeman but handing Billings West its first loss of the season.

“Our kids were so disappointed after (losing to Bozeman) Friday night that they wanted to come out and play the way they felt they could play (at West),” Crosby said. “West didn’t have a lot of open looks. They do such a good job of getting open looks, and they make them when they do. I think that was our best defensive performance.”

The Rustlers held the Golden Bears to just 31 points – West’s lowest point total of the season – and haven’t given up more than 44 points in any of their last four games. Those four games all came on the road, with the Rustlers also getting a 55-35 win at Butte and a 47-44 win at Great Falls High.

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For comparison, CMR allowed 54 or more points in four of its first six games.

“I think we’ve really found our niche on defense,” Crosby said, noting that Kayci Edwards has embraced the role of defensive stopper on the perimeter.

“That’s been huge, the ability to get stops,” Crosby continued. “It feeds everybody else. We’re really taking pride in our defense. If we can continue to play defense the way we have, then we can develop a few more scorers.”

Three players are already averaging double figures. Addison Gardiner leads the way at 14 points per game, Choteau transfer Tristin Achenbach scores 11.1 and Kyra Willis adds 10.7. Achenbach (12 points, 15 rebounds) and Willis (14 points, 10 rebounds) both had double-doubles against West.

Crosby said Akasia Denton is recovering from an injury, and her presence will give them a scoring boost when she returns to the lineup, too. She was averaging 8.8 points through the first five games of the season.

Then there’s Mady Skawinski, who averages 6.3 points per game but made her biggest contribution in the Rustlers’ most pivotal game. Skawinski scored 20 points, connecting on five-of-six 3-point attempts, to lead CMR to that crucial win over Great Falls High. It ended the Rustlers’ nine-game losing streak to their crosstown rivals.

“To win in their barn and do it the way we did, where – it was a close game, but we felt like we were in control most of the way,” said Crosby, who is in his fourth season as coach. “And (Great Falls High is) a good team. Our kids walked off the floor feeling like they could beat anybody. Not only did we get that monkey off our backs, a win against your rival is huge, a win against your rival on the road is even bigger. But a win against a really, really good team that’s your rival, that allows you to believe.”

And the Rustlers are starting to believe they belong in the upper tier of the Eastern AA. They’ve justified it in the standings, climbing into a second-place tie with West at 3-1 in the league.

After Tuesday night’s game at Havre, CMR plays its next seven games at home, including six in the conference.

“(The players) believe that they’re good enough,” said Crosby. “We’ve had talent, but we haven’t always had that belief that we belong. … Winning breeds winning. You win some games and you start to feel pretty good about yourself, and I think that’s a big thing.”