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Crunch time for MSU Billings women in GNAC playoff race

Posted at 3:22 PM, Feb 20, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-20 17:22:09-05

(MSUB Athletics media release)

BILLINGS – Holding on to hopes for a Great Northwest Athletic Conference playoff berth, the Montana State University Billings women’s basketball team faces a pair of crucial games on the road this weekend.

On tap this week is a Thursday evening game at Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Oregon, and a Saturday affair at Concordia University in Portland. Both games are scheduled to tip off at 5:15 p.m. Pacific/6:15 p.m. Mountain, and live video with play-by-play commentary and live statistics will be available online through the MSUB Stretch Internet portal here.

“We are looking forward to this road trip, and it seems that whenever we play Western Oregon and Concordia over there, the games are close,” said MSUB head coach Kevin Woodin. “I expect that to again be the case. Some keys for us will be to create and take good shots, and we must convert at a higher percentage in the paint than we did last week. Our interior defense must improve, and I believe rebounding will be a key too. Offensive rebounds which translate into extra shots and points will help us, and defensively we need more contributions from our perimeter players on the glass.”

The Yellowjackets (10-12, 6-10 GNAC) are currently tied with Seattle Pacific University for seventh place in the GNAC standings, and are 1.5 games out of the playoff race with four left to play. No. 7 Northwest Nazarene University and No. 10 University of Alaska Anchorage are tied for first place and have already clinched berths, while third-place Simon Fraser University has secured a spot as well.

MSUB will have to fight off Concordia and Seattle Pacific to earn the final spot. Central Washington can clinch a berth with one more win, and Western Washington can do so by winning two of its final four contests. The current scenario makes Saturday’s game at Concordia vitally important, as it could bring MSUB even with the Cavaliers and would even the season series at 1-1 if coupled with a win at Western Oregon on Thursday.

MSUB closes the season at home next week, taking on Simon Fraser and Western Washington. It will be a chance for the ‘Jackets to knock off teams above them in the standings – which they haven’t done yet this season – and could be crucial in a final playoff push.

“We know our backs are to the wall and we need wins this week,” said Woodin. “Urgency has arrived, and it is now up to us to see how we deal with it. Late-game execution could also play a huge factor this week and I would like to see us get to the foul line and convert at a very high percentage this week. Every game is like a playoff game now, and that is the way it should be.”

MSUB is coming off a tough home stand, and has lost three in-a-row including a 92-86 loss against No. 7 NNU and an 82-45 setback against Central Washington last week at Alterowitz Gym.

COLLINS AMONG GNAC LEADERS: Four of the top-10 scorers in the GNAC will be on display in MSUB’s two games this weekend, including second-leading scorer Hannah Collins. The Great Falls native is averaging 15.3 points per game, and had an 18-point performance last week against Northwest Nazarene. Collins enters Thursday’s game just four points shy of 500 in her career, as she has racked up 322 in 21 games started as a sophomore this season.

Thursday’s game against WOU will feature the No. 6 scorer in the league in Natalie DeLonge, who is putting up 14.0 points per game to lead the Wolves. On Saturday, the ‘Jackets will see the conference’s leading scorer in probable GNAC Newcomer of the Year Olivia Vezaldenos (15.6 ppg). Senior point guard Keesha Sarman of CU is also in the top-10 in scoring at 12.8 points per game.

CUNNINGHAM NEARS CAREER HIGH: Junior Taylor Cunningham approached her career high last week, as she scored 18 points in the game against Northwest Nazarene. Cunningham is averaging 12.0 points this year, and with 449 in her career she also has a chance to reach the 500 mark by the end of the season.

There are only two players in the GNAC who have recorded at least one point, rebound, and assist in every game they have played this season (minimum 80% of team games played), and Cunningham is one of them. Joining her on that short list is Sadie Mensing of Central Washington University.

STAVISH LOOKING TO FINISH STRONG: Senior Vanessa Stavish has ramped up her production down the final stretch of her career, and is averaging 13.8 points over her last five games. Stavish was just three points away from her career high last Thursday, as she also had 18 against the Nighthawks.

Prior to last Saturday’s game, Stavish was recognized in a ceremony for her status in the top-10 in program history in career 3-pointers made. Entering this week’s game, her total of 144 makes from beyond the arc is No. 9.

Stavish joined the 400-rebound club, which has been attained by 28 other MSUB players, and she currently has 428. The Frenchtown native also passed Bobbi Knudsen, Kayleen Goggins, and Quinn Peoples for No. 3 in MSUB history in games played, with the 119th of her career last Saturday. Only Alisha Breen (130) and Rylee Kane (125) have played in more games as Yellowjackets.

SHELLEY MAKING WAVES: Freshman forward Taryn Shelley is fourth on the team in scoring with 10.8 points per game, and her rebounding total of 8.3 is No. 3 in the GNAC. Shelley has also blocked 43 shots this season, which is the second-highest total in the conference. Among all-time MSUB marks it is tied for the eighth-most blocks in a single season, and it is the most blocks by any Yellowjacket player since Hall of Famer Tanya Petersen had 40 in the 2005-06 campaign.

LEMELIN CONTINUES IMPROVEMENT: Junior guard Jeanann Lemelin has steadily improved throughout the season, and she posted two more career highs last week. On Thursday it was a 14-point effort against Northwest Nazarene, as she made 5 of 7 shots and all four of her foul shots while also grabbing six rebounds. On Saturday against CWU, Lemelin snagged a personal-best eight rebounds. Over her last eight games, Lemelin is averaging 5.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 2.5 assists.

Western Oregon University Wolves
Thursday, February 21 – 5:15 PM – Monmouth, Oregon
2018-19 Record: 7-16, 4-13 GNAC (9th place)
Head Coach: Holli Howard-Carpenter, 6th season
2017-18 Record: 11-15, 7-13 GNAC (9th place)
First Meeting: MSUB 65, WOU 53 (January 26 at Billings, MT)

Western Oregon has lost five straight games and eight of the last nine to fall out of contention for this year’s playoffs. The Wolves suffered a 64-47 defeat against Concordia on Tuesday night, and will close the year at home next week against Seattle Pacific and Saint Martin’s.

DeLonge is averaging 14.0 points, and shoots 42.6 percent strictly in the paint. She is also the team’s top rebounder at 6.9 per game, and has blocked 23 shots in 23 games.

Tresai McCarver is the Wolves’ top 3-point shooter, as she connects at a clip of 38.8 percent and averages 6.9 points. Joining DeLonge in starting every game this season is Ali Nelke, who is contributing 8.0 points and a team-second best 5.3 rebounds. Nelke shoots 56.5 percent from the floor and leads the team with 25 blocked shots.

WOU is being out-scored this season 67.8-61.6 with its scoring offense ranking 10th in the league. The Wolves enjoy a plus-4.1 margin in rebounding to rank third in the conference, as they average 38.9 while giving up 34.8. Western Oregon is shooting 40.1 percent overall, 27.0 percent from 3-point range, and 73.1 percent from the foul line.

The Series: MSUB is 26-7 all-time against WOU and has a record of 13-4 in games played in Monmouth. The Yellowjackets have not lost a road game against the Wolves since January 5, 2013, a stretch of five straight wins on the West Coast.

Last Time Out: Shelley had 18 points and nine rebounds, Collins added 15 points, and Stavish had a career-high 15 rebounds in MSUB’s win at home. DeLonge was limited to just nine points, and Taisha Thomas led the team with 11 the last time the teams met.

Concordia University Cavaliers
Saturday, February 23 – 5:15 PM – Portland, Oregon
2018-19 Record: 13-12, 8-9 GNAC
Head Coach: Sean Kelly, 5th season
2017-18 Record: 14-14, 8-12 GNAC (7th place)
First Meeting: CU 65, MSUB 59 (January 24, 2019 at Billings, MT)

Concordia has won three of its last four games, making a late push as it searches for its first GNAC Championships berth since joining the conference full time in 2015-16. CU knocked off WOU 64-47 Tuesday night on the road, and will finish the year with three straight at home including Saint Martin’s on Feb. 28 and Seattle Pacific on March 2 after Saturday’s game against MSUB.

Vezaldenos scored 19 points on Tuesday, edging her past Collins for the top scoring spot in the conference. After transferring from Chabot College, Vezaldenos has taken the league by storm and is shooting 37.9 percent overall and 38.7 percent from 3-point range.

A veteran at the point guard position, Sarman is averaging 12.8 points, and team-highs of 7.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists. The four-year starter is averaging 34.1 minutes per game, and also paces the squad with 59 steals. Her nine double-doubles are the most in the league.

Erin Higbie is the other CU player to have started upwards of 20 games this year, and she is contributing 7.9 points and 6.1 rebounds. Kizzah Maltezo was off to a good start with 10.8 points through a dozen games, but has not played since CU’s January 5 game against Central Washington.

CU is being narrowly out-scored 67.0-65.2, and narrowly out-rebounded 37.8-36.6. The Cavaliers are shooting 39.6 percent overall, 34.4 percent from 3-point range, and 71.8 percent from the free-throw line.

The Series: MSUB is 6-2 all-time against the ‘Cavs and is 2-1 in road games.

Last Time Out: Vezaldenos went off for 27 points, making 5 of 11 threes and all 10 of her free throws. Sarman had a 17-point, 12-rebound double-double, and Higbie added 10 points for CU. Collins had 21 and Shelley just missed a double-double with 16 points and nine boards in the loss.