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MSU Billings women reach GNAC semis, men's season over

MSUB WBB Kunkel.png
Posted at 7:45 AM, Mar 04, 2022

(Editor's note: MSUB Athletics release)

LACEY, Wash. – Avenging a defeat in last week's regular-season finale on Thursday afternoon at Marcus Pavilion, the Montana State University Billings women's basketball team topped Northwest Nazarene University 69-56 in a quarterfinal matchup at the 2022 Great Northwest Athletic Conference Championships.

MSUB advances to the semifinals on Friday at 2:15 p.m. Pacific/3:15 p.m. Mountain, taking on No. 1 seed #22 Western Washington University which beat No. 8 seed Saint Martin’s University 60-54 on Thursday. “We are just excited about the opportunity tomorrow, and we are going to do everything we can in the next 24 hours to prepare physically and mentally,” said MSUB head coach Kevin Woodin. “I believe we are going to play our best game of the season tomorrow.”

No. 3 seed Central Washington will take on No. 2 seed University of Alaska Anchorage in Friday’s first semifinal at noon Pacific/1 p.m. Mountain, after the Wildcats handled No. 6 seed Simon Fraser 91-85 and the Seawolves toppled No. 7 seed Seattle Pacific 57-50 in Thursday’s other quarterfinal action.

2022 GNAC Women’s Basketball Championships – Semifinals

Friday, March 4, 2022 – Marcus Pavilion – Lacey, Washington

Noon Pacific/1 p.m. Mountain – No. 3 seed Central Washington University vs. No. 2 seed University of Alaska Anchorage

2:15 p.m. Pacific/3:15 p.m. Mountain – No. 5 seed MSU Billings vs. No. 1 seed #22 Western Washington

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MSUB (17-11) started hot and never looked back in their first playoff game since the spring of 2020, leading from wire-to-wire in the momentous victory. “It was a great win for our team today,” said Woodin, who piloted the Yellowjackets to the GNAC semifinals for the fourth time in his tenure as head coach. “We had great focus all week in practice, we had a great game plan, and I thought our defense was tremendous. That was the key for us today the entire game.”

The Yellowjackets bounced back quickly from Saturday’s 86-76 loss to the Nighthawks, as NNU raced to victory in the regular-season finale in Nampa, Idaho, just five days ago. “We talked about trying to keep them in a lower-scoring game,” Woodin said regarding his team’s adjustments from last week. “You can’t change the tempo with them – they are just too fast and too good at what they do. But we knew that if the score was in the 70s or 80s that it would be harder for us to win that type of game. Give credit to my assistant coaches – they scouted them well.”

Cariann Kunkel scored the first bucket of the game on her way to a dominant performance, as she matched her third-highest point total of the season with 18 on 7-for-12 shooting. Kunkel added a season-high five assists, to go along with three rebounds and a steal. “We were really excited, and we knew coming into this game that we needed to have a really good start,” said Kunkel. “That was kind of a struggle at the beginning of the season, but we have really turned that around. That really showed today. It was great to play them again, and get the win this time.”

“It’s so fun, and I love tournament time,” said Kunkel, who last played in a postseason game as a sophomore at Wenatchee Valley College in the spring of 2020. “I have only been in a tournament atmosphere one other time, but the GNAC is very exciting. We are just really prepared, and sticking together and trusting each other will be key going forward.”

Senior Taryn Shelley led all players with a 20-point, 14-rebound double-double, as she made 9 of 11 field goals and blocked a season-high four shots in 33 powerful minutes. Kortney Nelson chipped in 14 points and eight boards, and Shayla Montague hit a pair of threes while adding seven rebounds and four assists. “Both Cariann and Taryn were very good, but people were very unselfish today and we scored a lot of different ways,” said Woodin. “It was a great win for our program.”

Northwest Nazarene (18-9), which was ranked seventh in the most recent NCAA regional rankings released on Wednesday, will now have to wait anxiously until Sunday night’s selection show to find out if their season will continue beyond Thursday’s defeat. Cami Knishka led NNU with 13 points – including three 3-pointers – while Nyalam Thabach scored a dozen to go with five boards and five assists.

Less than a week after NNU out-raced MSUB 86-76 thanks to shooting 50.8 percent in the regular-season finale last Saturday in Nampa, Idaho, the Nighthawks made just 21 of 69 shots (30.4 percent) as they were held to their worst shooting performance of the season on Thursday.

Kunkel started strong offensively, scoring MSUB’s first seven points with a pair of layups and a three from the wing. The statement start from the recently-minted GNAC Newcomer of the Year helped the Yellowjackets to a 24-17 edge after the first 10 minutes of play, and the Yellowjackets backed that up with a stellar defensive second quarter.

NNU endured a dry spell that lasted 8:44, as it went without a point from the 6:28 mark in the second quarter until Erin Jenkins finally made a jumper at the 7:42 mark in the third. By then, MSUB had constructed a 38-22 halftime advantage and kept its foot on the gas to maintain a 13-point edge going into the fourth quarter. NNU never got closer than down 11 points the rest of the way, as MSUB matched its opponent bucket-for-bucket during a 19-19 fourth quarter.

The Yellowjackets made 15 of 25 shots in the high-scoring opening half (60.0 percent), while enjoying a 21-14 edge in rebounding on the way to the 16-point advantage at the break. NNU meanwhile couldn’t recover from a 9-for-33 performance in the first half (27.3 percent). “The boards were a key today, and we out-rebounded them,” said Woodin. “Even though we turned it over several times, we shot the ball better today and we got the ball into the paint. Our start today in the first quarter was huge, and we were really sharing the ball. We were able to get a lead going into the second quarter, and we played very well against a good team.”

The Yellowjackets held a dominant 45-31 advantage in rebounding, and held the Nighthawks six points below their season defensive average of 62.2 points allowed per game. MSUB shot a stellar 50.0 percent in the game (26-for-52), while making 4 of 16 threes (25.0 percent) and 13 of 17 free throws (76.5 percent). The Yellowjackets won despite committing a season-high 25 turnovers, as their suffocating defense made up for it by forcing NNU into low-percentage shots throughout the afternoon.

Meantime, despite cutting Central Washington’s lead down to three points late in the second half and late heroics from senior guard Damen Thacker, the Montana State University Billings Yellowjackets’ 2021-22 season came to an end in the GNAC Championship quarterfinals with a 74-67 loss to the 5-seed Wildcats on Thursday night.

Facing off in the GNAC Championships for the first time, the Yellowjackets (13-15, 9-8 GNAC) and the Wildcats (16-8, 9-7 GNAC) combined to make five threes. But 19 Central Washington points off 15 MSUB turnovers was the difference-maker.

“I’m proud of our guys,” MSUB head coach Mick Durham said. “We had a tough night shooting, but we battled all night. Central Washington pressured us and made it hard for us offensively all game. We competed for all 40 minutes and enjoyed the tournament atmosphere and experience.”

Playing his final game in a MSUB uniform, Thacker led all scorers with 23 points on 8-for-17 shooting – 11 of which came with under four minutes to play. The senior guard nearly brought MSUB into the semifinals by backing down four different CWU defenders and getting to the basket, plus he was a perfect 7-for-7 from the charity stripe.

Junior forward Bilal Shabazz put together a consistent game from start to finish, scoring 13 points on 5-for-10 shooting and grabbing six rebounds. Nicholas Sebastiao finished with nine points before fouling out, plus Carrington Wiggins and Emmanuel Ajanaku contributed eight points apiece.

Although both squads combined for three threes in the first half, both teams pushed the pace from the jump and attacked the rim. MSUB took an early 12-4 lead off five early points from Bilal Shabazz, plus Nicholas Sebastiao’s first three of the night. A 7-0 run from CWU followed, but Brent Finn found Damen Thacker for a midrange jumper to put the Wildcats at bay. Thacker’s inbounds pass over CWU’s defense and into the waiting arms of Malik Brikat led to an easy two, yet these would be MSUB’s final points for four minutes and 26 seconds.

Central Washington went on a 8-0 run until Shabazz broke the seal by backing down his man and making a left hook to make it a 26-22 game with 5:57 remaining in the half. The Wildcats would push their lead back to five until Thacker went on a personal 4-0 run – first by curling around a screen to hit a floater over two defenders, then with two free throws. Save for a jumper from Xavier Smith, both teams struggled to score in the final three minutes of the half, as the Yellowjackets entered the locker room trailing 31-28.

The Wildcats never trailed in the second half, yet MSUB cut the Wildcats’ lead to three points in the early goings thanks to a lay-in from Emmanuel Ajanaku, then Wiggins driving along the baseline for a layup. Trailing 39-37 with 15:15 to go, Wiggins made free throws pulled MSUB within one, but five straight from Colby Gennett, then a left-handed layup from Smith put MSUB at arm’s length for the rest of the game.

Four points felt like a summit the ‘Jackets couldn’t reach. Nicholas Sebastiao drove to the basket and made a layup at the 10:53 mark to make the score 46-42, marking the first of eight times over the next nine minutes that the Yellowjackets pull within four points of Central Washington. Yet the Wildcats quelled every MSUB run with baskets of their own, plus the Yellowjackets tried capitalizing in transition but couldn’t come up with anything to show for it.

With both crowds getting into the game, fouls ramping up and both teams locked into a defensive struggle, the game reached a fever pitch. Four points was a mountain for MSUB. Sebastiao made a lay-in over his defender on an out-of-bounds play. Shabazz got fouled, then calmly sank both free throws. CWU retaliated to lead by eight, then a basket from Ajanaku and free-throws from Wiggins brought MSUB within four points, 58-54. Brikat’s layup at the 4:32 mark brought MSUB within four for a third time, yet a jumper from Smith and a straight-away three from Thompson appeared to be an early dagger.

Then Thacker nearly willed the Yellowjackets back into the game.

Trailing 65-56 with the season on the line, Thacker got the ball on the left wing, backed down his defender all the way to the left block, then made a layup. Smith came up empty on the next possession, Wiggins brought down the board and pushed the ball up to Thacker, who backed down Thompson from the left wing. Thompson was called for a technical on the play, sending Thacker to the line for a free throw, which he made. Thacker backed down yet another defender from the left wing, drew contact and made both free throws. The senior guard went with the same move six straight times, yet the Wildcats couldn’t figure out how to guard him.

Thanks to Thacker’s heroics, the Yellowjackets pulled within three, trailing 70-67 with 34 seconds left. But they wouldn’t get closer.

Two more free throws on CWU’s penultimate possession, then a missed MSUB three forced the ‘Jackets to foul trailing by five with seven seconds left. Free throws from Marqus Gilson iced the game, then a desperation heave on MSUB’s final possession ended the season.