(MSU Billings release)
PORTLAND, Ore. – An anxious Bobbi Knudsen offered her co-pilot a few choice words of advice.
“If you don’t hurry, we aren’t going to make it in time,” said the former three-time All-American and Montana State University Billings women’s basketball legend.
The trip started out as a venture on a whim, some sort of escape – both mental and physical – for a freshly-graduated Alisha Breen. Caught somewhere between college basketball stardom and the crippling uncertainty of the void left in the wake of an experience that began in 2013, she needed to get away.
Five years after then-freshman Breen and then-senior Knudsen led the Yellowjackets on a magical postseason run to the NCAA Division II West Region title contest, the two hopped into a 2007 Chevy Colorado and started driving. They didn’t necessarily plan for their road trip to balloon into a 13-day, 20-state excursion that covered 6,151 miles, but then again, for once in their lives, they didn’t really have a plan for anything.
From Mount Rushmore to Churchill Downs, and the streets of downtown Nashville to the vibes of New Orleans, there were numerous landmark stops along the way. But where they were headed in a rush that day carried a strong personal connection.
It was Friday, May 18, and the duo had driven through the night to Indianapolis en route to the next state on their list, Tennessee. The goal for the day was to make it to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, to catch a tangible glimpse of a history that each player contributed to. By 2:30 p.m. they had made it to the University of Kentucky in Lexington, and after some quick math provoked panic in Knudsen that they wouldn’t make it in time, she resigned to a nap in the passenger’s seat while Breen took the wheel.
At 4:50 p.m., 10 minutes before the posted closing time of the hall of fame museum, Breen took off out of the driver’s seat leaving a drowsy Knudsen to park the car. She negotiated her way into 15 extra minutes inside, enough time to shoot a couple free throws and snap a photo at the famed Ring of Honor. Though she was three weeks early, Breen’s yellow No. 20 jersey has since arrived at the venue and will now hang in the rafters for the next year. It is a tribute earned by virtue of her selection as a first-team All-American by both the Division II Conference Commissioners Association and the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association.
For five years Breen’s life had been built around a structured plan, with everything from the extreme demands of playing collegiate basketball to maintaining a high level of academic achievement. It paid off in her senior season, when she was named a CoSIDA Academic All-American, received the MSUB Outstanding Undergraduate award, and on Wednesday was announced as the Great Northwest Athletic Conference co-Scholar Athlete of the Year as voted by the conference’s athletic directors.
Breen finished her degree in health and human performance with a 3.67 cumulative grade point average, capping it off by completing a thesis involving the significance of taping ankles prior to physical activity and using Sparta Science technology.
It is fitting that the subject of Breen’s best academic work was based around injury prevention, after a devastating torn ACL in November of 2016 cost her what should have been her senior basketball season. It was the one time in her collegiate career that she went off script, although it differed from her road trip with Knudsen in that she had no choice but to embark on the grueling rehabilitation process and return to the game she loved.
It is still hard to fathom what Breen achieved throughout the course of the next year, which flashed by at a seemingly accelerated pace. She scored more points than anybody in MSUB or GNAC history – both in a season (791) and in a career (2,001). Less than 12 months after sustaining one of sport’s most heinous injuries, she played more minutes (1,337) and made more free throws (226) than any player in the NCAA. Drawing on the leadership she witnessed from Knudsen as a freshman, she led MSUB to the greatest season in school history with a program-record 25 wins, GNAC Championships and NCAA West Region tournament titles, and a second-ever appearance in the NCAA Division II Elite Eight.
Breen is the first female athlete in MSUB history to claim the GNAC Scholar Athlete of the Year honor, and third overall joining Jarred Rensvold (2007-08, cross country/track) and Sam Charles (2008-09 & 2009-10, men’s soccer). Also on the short list of Yellowjackets to receive year-end awards from the GNAC are Knudsen, the 2013-14 GNAC Female Athlete of the Year, and Brody Miller (baseball), the 2014-15 GNAC Male Athlete of the Year. Breen shares this year’s award with Caroline Kurgat of the University of Alaska Anchorage (cross country/track & field).
Breen has seen the country, in large part thanks to her experience at MSUB. In the last calendar year alone basketball road trips have taken her to all of the West Coast states and across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii. She hoisted a trophy in Anchorage, Alaska, and beamed with a piece of nylon between her teeth while shouldering an even bigger one in Azusa, California. She scored 25 points in the final game of her career on the floor of the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D., breaking the MSUB career scoring record by one point – on a free throw.
But there was always an agenda tied to her travel, a piece of important business to take care of on the hardwood. While reflecting on what the sport of basketball did for her throughout the most recent road trip, Breen was able to at the same time enjoy the sights without the pressure of competition.
Those who know Alisha Breen understand her faith in life to guide her in the right direction. In some ways, that’s exactly what her most recent trip was: a search not for the meaning of it all, but an emergence of an adventurous spirit that will prompt her next step.