(MSUB Athletics release)
BILLINGS – Coming off a memorable run to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight a season ago, the Montana State University Billings women’s basketball team will look to build off what matched the greatest single season in school history.
The Jackets open exhibition play Tuesday night at 7 p.m. against Rocky Mountain College inside Rocky’s Fortin Center.
MSUB the program record a year ago with 25 wins, going 25-12 overall and winning the second west region title in school history. MSUB also went 12-8 in Great Northwest Athletic Conference play last year to finish fourth, before an exhilarating run to the conference tournament title.
Eight players from last year’s squad return to MSUB’s lineup this winter, and four freshmen will join the mix and compete for playing time as well. The ‘Jackets play Rocky Mountain College in an exhibition game Tuesday night at 7 p.m., before opening the regular season on Friday evening with a home game against the University of Providence at 7 p.m.
“I am very excited to get our season going, and we return a lot of key players with some new faces as well,” said MSUB head coach Kevin Woodin. “We have a lot of potential to be very good. The key will be improving each month.”
MSUB was selected to finish eighth among 11 teams in the GNAC preseason coaches poll, released on October 24.
A trio of well-established seniors are at the core of this season’s team, with Vanessa Stavish returning for her fifth year and Taylor Edwards and Brina Hull each in their fourth season in the navy and gold.
The lineup will also feature sophomore Hannah Collins as the starting point guard, and junior Taylor Cunningham returns after starting full time last season.
After red-shirting in 2016-17, Stavish had a breakout campaign last year as she ranked third on the team with 9.5 points per game. She also tied for second with 5.0 rebounds per game, while starting all 37 contests and averaging 22.8 minutes per game.
“Vanessa had a very consistent junior season, and returns as a starter and is now one of our co-captains,” Woodin said. “I look for her offensive game to be more versatile than a year ago. We rely on her ability to stretch defenses with her 3-point shooting, and we need her to be a greater threat around the basket too.”
Overall in her career Stavish has played in 97 games while scoring 587 points and adding 176 rebounds. A dual threat as both a shooter and under the basket, she has connected on 107 3-pointers in her career, and needs 18 more to break into the MSUB top-10 in that category. She was tabbed by the GNAC coaches as a unanimous preseason all-conference selection.
Stavish will be called upon to help fill the void left by 2017-18 All-American and new MSUB assistant coach Alisha Breen, who averaged 21.4 points and 9.4 rebounds per game last season.
As the Yellowjackets’ historic season elevated with intensity, so did the play of Collins as she saw the court in all 37 games and averaged 19.1 minutes. She totaled 147 points and 46 assists in her debut collegiate season, and rose to the challenge during the team’s playoff run. In MSUB’s seven postseason games, Collins averaged 5.1 points, 1.3 assists, and 28.6 minutes per game. She takes over for four-year starting point guard Rylee Kane, who made 125 consecutive starts from 2014-18 and finished No. 2 in MSUB history with 563 assists.
Like Stavish, Collins will be expected to play an increased role offensively to help supplement Kane’s 14.0 points per game from last season. Overall the ‘Jackets said goodbye to five players who combined for 49 of the team’s 71 points per game.
“I have been impressed with Hannah’s improvement from last spring,” Woodin said. “She is more than ready to move into the starting point guard position. The increased game experience down the stretch in the playoff run really benefitted her and motivated her in the off-season. Her speed and ability to penetrate are game changers, and we also need her to be a much-improved defender this year in order to become a complete player.”
Expected to start for the second straight season is Cunningham, who got the nod in 33 games last year and averaged 23.8 minutes per game. The Spokane, Washington, native was one of the team’s key rebounders, as she averaged 3.1 per game and also recorded a dozen blocked shots. MSUB will look for Cunningham to continue her upward trend throughout her first two seasons, as she more than doubled her scoring total over her first two seasons and averaged 4.3 points per game in 2017-18.
“Taylor returns as a starter, and will be asked to be a bigger part of our offense,” said Woodin. “She has the ability to score at many levels, and will play some post in addition to her wing position this year. I think her versatility could be a key factor in our success.”
Edwards was a key role player on last year’s squad and has seen action in 69 games during her career. The Great Falls native’s best season was in 2016-17, when she was averaging 7.3 points per game before a devastating, season-ending knee injury. After averaging 2.0 points in her first year back in 2017-18, Edwards will look to return to her strength as a perimeter shooter in her final collegiate season.
“It’s great to have Taylor back and 100 percent healthy,” Woodin commented. “Last year she gutted it out, but her knee wasn’t quite where she wanted it to be. She is much improved, and is going to be relied on to be one of our captains. Like Hannah, we need her to be an improved perimeter defender. Offensively she can hit threes, and has improved her mid-range game through a lot of hard work in the off-season.”
Like Edwards, Hull returns for her fourth season after playing in 32 games as a junior last year. Hull will look to replicate and improve upon the performance of her sophomore campaign, when she averaged 3.4 points and 2.0 rebounds in 17.3 minutes.
“Brina is our third senior co-captain, and she has the ability to bring instant offense off the bench,” said Woodin. “She is also a key defender for us. She was one of our best help-side defenders a year ago, recording the second-most charges on our team. I look for her to have an increased role for our team on both ends.”
MSUB’s other returners include juniors Jeanann Lemelin and Janessa Williams, and redshirt freshman Emily St. John. Lemelin saw action in 34 games and averaged 7.9 minutes off the bench. She scored 54 total points and will be trusted with the ball in key situations this season after 20 assists against just 16 turnovers. “Jeanann will play both the point and shooting guard positions this year,” said Woodin. “Her ability to do that will be an important element in how we do this year. I love her intensity, and her poise with the basketball has greatly improved.”
Williams played in 18 games in her second year in the program, and averaged 2.2 minutes in limited opportunities.
“Janessa and Emily will see time at their respective positions,” said Woodin. “I know each of them have improved, and will have the opportunity to play. If players like Janessa and Emily do what they’re capable of, it will provide us with much needed depth.”
Among the Yellowjackets’ four new players, perhaps the most promising is the 6-foot-3 Taryn Shelley of Shoreline, Washington. She spent her first collegiate season at Washington State University, but redshirted and will have four years of eligibility with the Yellowjackets. As a senior at Shorewood High School, Shelley averaged 16 points, 15.2 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks per game in 2016-17. Her versatility as a shooter on the wing and with her strength in the post is something the ‘Jackets are optimistic will translate well to the collegiate level.
“I am excited to have a player of Taryn’s potential join us,” Woodin said. “She gives us size and skill on the interior, and she has the ability to impact the game at both ends. I look for her to have an immediate impact on our team, and improve steadily as she gets used to our schemes.”
The team’s other three first-year players include 5-foot-11 forward Shannon Reny from Libby, 5-foot-6 guard Micalann McCrea from Ronan, and 5-foot-7 freshman Addison Gardner from Great Falls. All three were all-state selections on the hardwood during their careers, and should compete for minutes in their first season as Yellowjackets.
“Those three have all been working hard, and each of them has some important skills that will benefit our program,” Woodin commented on the newcomers. “It is important for them to improve throughout the season, and they could get some key minutes depending on their development.”
MSUB’s 20-game Great Northwest Athletic Conference schedule begins Nov. 29 at Simon Fraser University, as the ‘Jackets seek to return to the conference tournament and defend last year’s title. The top-six teams in the GNAC regular-season standings earn a spot in the 2018-19 GNAC Championships, which are scheduled for March 7-9 at Sam Carver Gym on the campus of Western Washington University in Bellingham.
All home games and select road contests throughout the 2018-19 season will feature live video with play-by-play commentary and live statistics, available online through MSUB’s Stretch Internet portal.