BILLINGS — Success is nothing new to the Montana State Billings women’s basketball team, a program of proven tradition with a winning pedigree.
Coach Kevin Woodin, in his 20th season at the helm, has his squad off to the races again this year having forged a 15-3 overall record and a perfect 6-0 mark in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference.
“We just have high expectations for ourselves,” said junior guard Aspen Giese, whose team was picked to win the GNAC in the preseason. “We have a standard that we hold ourselves to.”
By contrast, MSUB’s men entered 2023-24 facing a few questions. With a first-year head coach in Luke Fennelly and a handful of new faces, the Yellowjackets were tied for fifth in the preseason GNAC poll.
No one is questioning them now. The men’s team, too, is out to a fantastic start, having matched the women with a 6-0 conference start and is 12-4 overall.
“It’s awesome,” said senior forward Zharon Richmond, whose first season with the program was seven years ago. “I’ve been on some MSUB teams that were happy when we got one win a weekend. Now we’re upset when we only get one win a weekend. Going 2-0 three weekends in a row? It’s great.”
The Yellowjackets — both the men and the women — are the buzz of the GNAC. Each squad is alone in first place atop its respective standings as the only unbeaten team in the league.
The goal now is to keep it going. MSUB’s men have a road showdown with GNAC combatant and No. 2-ranked Saint Martin’s (14-1, 4-1) on Thursday while the women, ranked No. 17 in the Division II poll, travel to Seattle Pacific (6-10, 3-3) on Saturday.
The Fennelly factor
Fennelly cut his coaching teeth as an assistant at Lane Community College in Oregon, and then spent seven seasons under both Brian Fish and Danny Sprinkle at Montana State before joining Mick Durham’s staff at MSUB. When Durham stepped down as the Jackets coach at the end of last season, Fennelly was tabbed as his replacement.
Fennelly, who hails from Whitefish, never doubted his ability to lead his own program and succeed on the merits of a strong team culture based on work ethic and energy. The formula is paying off.
“It’s been extremely rewarding,” Fennelly said. “You always believe in yourself but you always wonder, ‘What are you going to teach? What are you going to sell?’ And to have that kind of come to fruition a little over halfway through the year … I’ve been extremely fortunate to have guys that love to compete and want to get better every day.”
Richmond, for one, has been a welcome (re)addition to the team. The 2017 Billings Skyview grad missed last season due to injury, then wasn’t able to play the two seasons prior to that due to academic struggles.
But he’s back this year and contributing in a big way at 12.8 points and 5.1 rebounds per game while shooting 44.3% from the floor. Richmond recently eclipsed 1,000 career points and became the program’s all-time leader in blocked shots.
“I think it helped to kind of sit back and watch and let all the energy brew inside of me because I hadn’t been able to (play),” Richmond said. “And this year I’m finally healthy and I got everything together, so it’s awesome that I can step out here and help our team get out to this start.”
Other returning pieces from last year include big man Emmanuel Ajanaku and guards Steven Richardson and Jalen and Jajuan Tot. Newcomers making an impact include transfers Daniel Moody, ex-Hardin star Famous Lefthand and Bryce Whitaker.
Moody has been especially resourceful. His triple-double of 24 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists helped spur a win over Western Washington last week. For his efforts, he was named GNAC player of the week.
Fennelly hopes to see more of the same, not just from Moody but from the entire squad.
“Championship teams come in and work and produce every day,” Fennelly said. “They don’t hang banners for going 6-0. So it’s all about the process and staying hungry. We all know we have to keep improving and the guys have bought into that. So we have to stay hungry.”
‘A dream team feeling’
What has keyed the MSUB women? A veteran presence is one important piece.
The Yellowjackets brought back upperclassmen like Giese and fellow guards Kortney Nelson, Danielle Zahn, Shayla Montague and Chloe Williams, as well as forwards Dyauni Boyce, Natalie Andreas and Kaitlin Grossman.
It's given the Jackets the ability to play with a high level of cohesion and, to Woodin’s delight, more consistency.
“Communication,” said Giese, a former Fort Benton star. “Most of us have played together for two or three years. So that really helps when you know where everybody’s going to be.”
The Jackets are averaging a staggering 17.5 team assists per game, but that synergy is also notable on the defensive end of the floor as they have limited opponents to 57.9 points per game and are allowing teams to shoot fewer than 10 foul shots a night.
And you have to consider MSUB striking gold in the NCAA transfer portal with former Montana State standout Kola Bad Bear, who transferred to play for the Jackets for her final year of eligibility this season.
Bad Bear, a Billings Senior alum, was already an All-Big Sky Conference performer with the Bobcats, and she has perhaps exceeded expectations for Woodin and Co.
“She’s somebody I’ve known since she was about 10 years old and I knew what a solid player she was,” Woodin said. “She’s been a great teammate, a great leader. She’s a tremendous passer. Her unselfishness on the court has really made me a believer.
“But from Day 1 she’s really worked hard to build relationships with the players that she didn’t know. She was going to come here and her talent would help us, but her leadership and ability to blend in and help our team chemistry has really been a benefit.”
Entering this week, Bad Bear was leading the team with averages of 17.0 points and 7.0 rebounds per game while shooting 55.2% from the field. Bad Bear and Boyce are both shooting better than 40% from 3.
Woodin has guided the Yellowjackets to the postseason 13 times, to the NCAA Division II national tournament six times and won a West Regional title for an Elite Eight appearance in 2018. His expectations this year aren't tempered.
“I think the sky’s the limit for this team,” Woodin said. “They know they have to play well together. What I like about them is the chemistry on the court; they give up the ball. They consistently give up a shot to get somebody else what they think is a better shot. Our assist-to-turnover ratio is second in the nation right now but it's also the best I've had.
“We have such floor balance. Our bigs can shoot the 3, we have guards that can post up. … It has a dream-team feeling for me. But at the same time we're not overconfident and we know that if we don't play our best in this league or in this region you can get beat.
“Yeah, we definitely have set high goals but we're trying to focus on the process and not the outcome.”