BILLINGS — Lindsay Woolley can’t help but notice he’s sleeping better these days.
The Montana Western women’s basketball coach has been living out of a hotel, the Home2 Suites by Hilton, for the last week as the Bulldogs continue to advance in the NAIA national tournament. Western tips off in the Fab Four Monday night at 6 p.m. against Freed-Hardeman (Tenn.), but despite the challenges and pressures stemming from the program’s record-setting showing, Woolley’s sleeping habits have improved.
“It’s actually better, surprisingly enough,” he laughed from his hotel room on Monday morning. “I wasn’t sleeping very good when we were winning seven, eight, nine games in a row there because you have the pressure of trying to win a league championship, trying not to screw it up. When you’re preparing for good coaches and good teams every week, for the second and third time, it’s stressful. When you get to this point, the teams are new, there’s only so much you can get ready for, you’re trying to keep your kids loose and obviously you want to win, there’s no doubt about that, but the stress is different. It’s more excitement versus the regular season.”
The last five days have been a fine balance between stress and excitement as Western has rattled off three straight wins in the national tournament — 66-54 over Dillard (La.), 60-57 against Campbellsville (Ky.) and Saturday’s 74-61 quarterfinal win over Menlo (Calif.) — to advance to the semifinals, the farthest any Western women’s team has advanced.
That magical run, paired with the elimination of six other Montana teams competing in postseason basketball — the Montana Grizzly men, Carroll College and Western men, as well as the Carroll, Providence and Rocky women — have Treasure State basketball fans in the Bulldogs’ corner.
“I think our kids (feel that support),” said Woolley. “We had a pretty good crowd on Saturday night and they certainly enjoyed it. With social media and the kids all being active on there, I’m sure they’re reading it, so we might have to knock them down a peg or two (Monday) afternoon at practice. They’ll be ready and they certainly appreciate it. Hopefully they perform well.”
Woolley, a 1997 Class AA state champion at Missoula Big Sky, is also in unchartered waters as a head coach. He has certainly seen his share of ups and downs in six years with the Bulldogs — from fifth- and fourth-place Frontier Conference finishes in his first two seasons, respectively, to dropping to the bottom of the league with only five combined conference wins the following two years.
But Western has been on the rise ever since, qualifying for the national tournament and advancing to the round of 16 last year, to the runner-up league finish and record-setting performances this week inside Rimrock Auto Arena.
“(Assistant coach Tony Nakashima) sit and talk and we don’t talk about it, to be honest with you. It’s ‘what do we have to do to get ready for the next one?’ Hopefully when it’s over we’ll have some time to sit back and reflect,” Woolley said. “We talk about our kids staying humble and hungry and being great one possession at a time while trying to stay in the present as much as they can. For our team, the biggest thing is managing the emotions, especially with (the tournament) being in Montana, they get really high during the game. We have to try and manage that a little bit and feed off of it rather than it being a detriment. Sometimes you wear yourself out by getting too emotional too early in the game.”
Woolley credits last year’s runner-up Lewis-Clark State College and former Frontier member Westminster for pushing Western and the rest of the league to this level, saying the Warriors and Griffins “made the rest of the teams realize there’s another level out there, so we have to do a better job recruiting, in the weight room and all those types of things.”
Western has paid close attention to those areas, particularly recruiting. Woolley has a number of key contributors on the roster, including double-double machine Britt Cooper of Harrison-Willow Creek and Spokane Falls transfer Brianna King, who broke her own program-record with a 40-point outing in Saturday’s win over Menlo, while also setting a national tournament record by hitting all 18 of her free throws.
“She’s only going to be with us for two years, this being her first, and when she gets done, after next year we should be able to look back at it, if she stays healthy and continues to improve, she has to be in the conversation for one of the best players that’s probably ever played here,” Woolley said of King. “Bobbi (Suhr) was so unique and she could score in so many different ways. Katherine (Sunwall) was so dominant on the defensive end, she just impacted the game. Obviously all three of them are different players and different eras and those types of things, but Bri has really been our catalyst all year. I’m sure (Monday night, Freed-Hardeman) is going to do some things to try and take her away or minimize her, but that’s going to open up some opportunities for some of our other kids.”
“For an undersized (post), she just knows how to play,” Woolley continued of Cooper. “I joked with her mom a month ago that she was a point guard in high school, we turned her into a 4 her first couple years and now we’ve turned her into a 5. Usually it goes the other way. She’s intelligent, she’s tough, she has great instincts and when she’s playing well, we typically play well. I’m not sure we’ve had one game all year where she’s had a good game and we didn’t win.”
Woolley and Western will need big outings from King and Cooper, as well as the supporting cast in Monday’s contest against the Lions, who rank first in the nation in numerous statistical categories, including scoring defense and offensive rebounds. Western holds its own in the stat book, and no matter the outcome of the game, the historic season by both team and individual is something Woolley hopes to soak in on Monday night.
“I don’t know, I hope so. These are hopefully things you can remember as you move forward,” he said. “I think, maybe tonight after our game, I think we have to stay on the floor and they have plaques or something for the kids for being Fab Four participants, so that might sink in with the crowd and everything. That could be a cool moment. I just hope it’s a cool moment and we feel pretty good about it because we get to play one more.”
Talk about sweet dreams.