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MSU Billings women almost pull off upset of No. 7 Nighthawks

Posted at 10:46 PM, Feb 14, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-15 01:03:22-05

(MSU Billings release)

BILLINGS – A playoff-like atmosphere filled Alterowitz Gym on Thursday night as the Montana State University Billings women’s basketball team pushed No. 7 Northwest Nazarene University to the limit in a tough 92-86 loss in Great Northwest Athletic Conference play.

As the Yellowjackets (10-11, 6-9 GNAC) battle for positioning in the GNAC standings, Thursday was a step in the right direction against one of the top teams in the nation. Jeanann Lemelin scored a career high 14 points, leading a quintet of double-figure scorers for MSUB.

Vanessa Stavish, Taylor Cunningham, and Hannah Collins scored 18 apiece, while Taryn Shelley added 13 and a team-best seven rebounds. Collins drained a huge three with 37 seconds left in the game, cutting the deficit to 86-83. But the Nighthawks stayed calm under pressure and made all six of their final free throws to seal the win.

“Our effort was really good, and I was proud of our players,” said MSUB head coach Kevin Woodin. “We gave up too many points in the first half and dug a hole, but we kept fighting. They are a really good, experienced team.”

NNU is now 22-1 on the season and remained atop the GNAC standings at 14-1 in conference play. Avery Albrecht led all players with 21 points, while Ellie Logan had 17 and Marina Valles turned in 15.

The Nighthawks shot a red hot 50.8 percent from the field (30-for-59), marking the ninth time that they have made at least half of their shots this year. MSUB meanwhile shot 43.5 percent (27-for-62), including a mark of 7-for-20 from 3-point range (35.0 percent).

MSUB got off to a slow start in the opening quarter, which ultimately led to the most points it has allowed in an opening half this season at 53. The Nighthawks maintained momentum at the close of the first quarter, when Jordan Pinson drained a wide-open three after a big defensive stop to make it a 30-16 ballgame.

Thirteen of Stavish’s points came in the opening half, including a three coming out of a timeout which cut the deficit to 39-29 with just under five minutes before the break. MSUB out-paced NNU 27-23 in the second overall, and trailed by just 10 points 53-43 at halftime. “Vanessa played her heart out,” Woodin commented on the senior. “She hit some big shots, and I was proud of her.”

MSUB worked its way back into the game coming out of the halftime break, cutting it to a single possession after a layup by Lemelin made it 55-52. The Billings native brought the third quarter to a close in dramatic fashion, catching and shooting with just 1.0 seconds on the clock to make it a 72-66 ballgame with 10 minutes left. “Jeanann gives you everything she’s got,” Woodin said on a night where she also had six boards and three steals. “That was a big shot she hit at the end of the third quarter, and she is being much more aggressive on offense.”

Shelley had four quick points coming out of a timeout, which kicked off a 5-0 run to shave an 11-point hole down to six. But Logan came up with a big-time block and Pinson hit a transition three as the Nighthawks kept a three-possession cushion. Each time the ‘Jackets made a push in the fourth, NNU had an answer as it finished off its fifth straight win. “We saw a lot of good things, and had a good effort,” Woodin said. “Give NNU credit, because they made plays at the end.”

The Nighthawks had a narrow 35-33 rebounding margin over the ‘Jackets, but dominated the inside game with a score of 47-32 on points in the paint. Each team turned the ball over 15 times throughout a chaotic, physical game, that saw 48 total personal fouls called and 61 total free throws attempted.

MSUB is just the third team this season to keep NNU to a single-digit margin, as the Nighthawks entered Thursday’s game No. 7 in the NCAA at plus-23.2 in scoring. The Nighthawks defeated Colorado Christian 80-75 on November 16, 2018, and lost to Simon Fraser 76-73 on January 26 in their only other games decided by fewer than 13 points.

While the Yellowjackets surrendered their season high in points in the opening half, the 43 they scored were tied for their most in the first 20 minutes of a game this season. The Yellowjackets also shattered their season high in free-throw attempts, which sat at 23 entering Thursday’s game. Overall it was the most foul shot attempts in a game by an MSUB team since a 26-for-33 performance on February 24, 2018 in a 76-63 win at Western Washington University.

PINK NIGHT: Thursday was Pink Night at Alterowitz Gym, with the Yellowjackets supporting the fight against breast cancer in conjunction with St. Vincent Healthcare’s EVA Project. Breast cancer survivors were recognized in a pregame ceremony, and the Yellowjackets wore pink jerseys in a tradition that was on display for the 13th straight year.

GNAC STANDINGS: Seattle Pacific University lost 82-61 against Simon Fraser University and Concordia University lost 71-47 against No. 10 Alaska Anchorage in two other key games on Thursday. That kept MSUB in a three-way tie for sixth place, as those three teams are all now 6-9 in conference play. Western Washington University picked up an important 66-50 win against Saint Martin’s, moving two games clear of the cluster at 8-7 and in sole possession of fifth place.

THE BUZZ: Lemelin was named the St. Vincent Healthcare Player of the Game…Thursday marked MSUB’s highest point total in a defeat in program history…the next-highest point total in a loss was an 86-85 defeat at the hands of NNU on February 12, 2015, nearly four years ago to the day…MSUB is now 18-15 all-time against NNU and is 10-4 in games at Alterowitz Gym…Lemelin’s previous career high of 12 points came on January 31, 2019 at Seattle Pacific…Thursday marked the first time this season that MSUB has had five different players reach double figures in scoring.

NEXT UP: MSUB plays at home again on Saturday, with an early 5:15 p.m. tipoff against Central Washington.