BILLINGS – Pick your favorite kind of story – quest, overcoming adversity, David vs. Goliath. No. 1 on our list of the top sports stories of 2018 has all of them – over a six month journey for one of the best players, and teams, Billings has ever seen.
This story actually begins two years ago – Nov. 4, 2016, in the second MSUB Lady Jackets game of the season. Preseason Conference Player of the Year Alisha Breen doesn’t care that it’s exhibition – she’s going as hard as she always does.
“She falls a lot,” admits MSUB head coach Kevin Woodin. “She’s a physical player, she hits the ground a lot.”
“It’s an ongoing joke with everybody – if I’m not on the ground it’s weird,” echoed Breen.
But this time, she didn’t get up. Breen tore the ACL in her left knee, and MSUB’s season was over before it even started. Fast forward 362 days later – Nov. 1, 2017, Breen’s first game back in her second shot at a senior season. She scores 31 points.
“It was an extremely long year, but it also went by very quickly,” Breen said. “I can’t believe I am here where I am.”
Breen didn’t lose a step, and MSUB’s opponents couldn’t keep up. The Jackets started 9-0, winning more games by mid-December than they had the entire previous season. By February, when we accompanied them on an Alaska road trip, it was as tight-knit a group as Woodin has ever had.
MSUB was back in Anchorage a month later for the GNAC tournament, knowing only a conference championship would get them into the NCAA Division 2 field. Wins over Central Washington and No. 1 seed Northwest Nazarene gave them a shot, and a title game toppling of Seattle Pacific made it reality.
“People count us down and out – we’re fighters,” Breen said after the win. “We hadn’t put together a full game. I thought we were peaking at the right time last week, and we showed up to play.”
“I’m pumped. I don’t what to say,” said Woodin in the postgame press conference. “As Nick Saban said, I think this is the happiest day of my life.”
That lasted for about a week. The Jackets drew Hawaii Pacific in the West Regional opener – a team that had beaten MSUB by 27 back in December. But this time, the Jackets took the lead in the 2nd quarter and never trailed again. That set up a meeting with UC San Diego, where senior point guard Rylee Kane decided to play the game of her life. Down one with 30 seconds to go, Kane hit a driving lay-up on her way to a career-best 31 points and a spot in the West Region title game.
As if the stakes weren’t high enough, their opponent was none other than Alaska Anchorage, who had beaten the Jackets nine straight times. But none featured this version of Kane. Again down one with under 10 seconds to go, Kane drove and was fouled this time, sending her to the line for the biggest two free throws of her life, though you wouldn’t know it as she calmly buried both.
“Really I couldn’t tell you what I was thinking. I think it’s better when I don’t think,” Kane admitted after the game. “If you can hear the people on the bench, they screamed ‘Rylee I love you!’ That started at Simon Fraser, and since then, it’s actually helped me out quite a bit.”
The job wasn’t completely done yet. Alaska Anchorage had 1.5 seconds to win it, but Breen blocked the Seawolves’ final shot to preserve the 71-70 win that sent the Jackets to the Elite 8 for just the second time in program history.
They pushed national No. 1 team Ashland all night, eventually coming up short, but not before Breen hit two 4th quarter free throws to break Alira Carpenter’s all-time school scoring record by a single point – a fitting end to the greatest season the MSUB Lady Jackets have ever had.