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Montana Western women return to national tournament as defending champions

Montana Western women 2019 national championship trophy
Posted at 7:01 AM, Mar 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-10 14:13:43-05

DILLON — Paige Holmes doesn't need to think very long when ranking the experience of winning the 2019 NAIA national championship with Montana Western.

"Probably the happiest moment of my life so far," said Holmes, now in her final season.

After some uncertainty, she and the Bulldogs -- albeit an almost completely different team than the one that trimmed the nets in Billings nearly two years ago -- will finally get a shot at defending their title after the 2020 tournament was called off.

Western (16-9 overall, 12-8 in the Frontier Conference) will take on Benedictine University on Friday in Lewiston, Idaho, in the opening round of the national tournament. The winner of that game will face Westmont on Saturday and whoever wins that game advances to the Round of 16 in Sioux City, Iowa.

For Western coach Lindsay Woolley, there's gratefulness that his team has reached this point with a relatively young squad. There's also a sense of anticipation at finally getting to play an opponent that they haven't already faced a multitude of times in a season where chances to play non-conference games were slim.

"Honestly, there's some excitement to go play a team that we haven't seen four or five times this year," Woolley said. "I know our kids are certainly fired up for the opportunity to go to Lewiston and play one or two games."

After falling to Carroll College 70-62 in the Frontier Conference championship, the Bulldogs were uncertain if they'd receive an invite.

The fact that Western clawed out of a 25-point deficit against the Saints to turn what was shaping up to be a runaway loss into a thriller must have swayed the nomination committee as the Bulldogs went on to earn an at-large bid and the No. 27 seed. It's the fifth straight season Western has qualified for the national tournament.

"We didn't know what was going to happen," said junior forward Brynley Fitzgerald, Western's leading scorer. "We were just waiting around, waiting to get back into practice. When we heard our name called we were pretty excited and excited to go play at a place we've played before."

Western used to play Lewis-Clark State in Lewiston when the Warriors were a member of the Frontier Conference.

With a national tournament game coming up that a week ago they didn't know if they'd get, the Bulldogs are looking to make the most of their chance.

"They're thankful that they get to continue to play and grateful for the opportunity," Woolley said.