MISSOULA — Loree Payne won games on basketball courts all across Montana during her playing days at Havre High School. Whether she was hitting 3-pointers in Class A rivalry games, making unthinkable shots in the lane at state tournaments or simply winning one-on-one contests at camps, Payne showcased her incredible skill, but also her knowledge for the game of basketball.
After scoring 2,299 points for the Blue Ponies, the fourth-best career total in girls basketball, according to the Montana High School Association record books, Payne would add to her legacy at the University of Washington, earning a pair of all-conference and Kodak all-American honors.
She has since carried that knowledge to the coaching ranks, first with stints at Northwest Nazarene, Portland and Washington as an assistant coach before landing her first head job at Puget Sound. She guided Puget Sound to a 130-58 record in seven seasons, capturing a pair of conference coach of the year awards in the process. She was hired as the head coach at Northern Arizona University in April 2017 and is currently in her second season with the Lumberjacks.
MTN Sports sat down with Payne following her team’s conference road swing through Montana, reminiscing about her time in Havre, how she fell in love with the game of basketball and the direction she hopes to take the young Lumberjacks.
MTN Sports: What has it been like coming to the Big Sky Conference and visiting familiar places like Montana and Montana State?
Payne: “It’s been great being in the Big Sky. Coming back to Montana is, I obviously have tons of family here and getting a chance to travel in the Big Sky, obviously growing up (in Montana) I’m very familiar with Big Sky Conference play and watching the Griz and Bobcats go at it for many years with the legacy of (former Lady Griz coach) Robin Selvig and it’s very cool to be back.”
MTN Sports: Any special people you get to see? Are there a lot of people that get to come to Missoula or Bozeman (when you’re playing UM or MSU)?
Payne: “The Bozeman one more so. A lot of my family lives down in Livingston, so I think for that game, we had like 30 people coming. We have a lot of relatives down there, which is great. It’s a business trip for us and we’re trying to come up and win some games and continue with our season, but it’s nice to take a little bit of perspective and see some family.”
MTN Sports: Let’s touch on your career in Havre, it was great, does coming back here let you re-live those times a little?
Payne: “Yeah. I grew up coming to camp in Missoula, the Lady Griz camp, since I was in fourth or fifth grade. Same thing with Bozeman. It’s nice to be able to re-connect with people I haven’t seen in a while. There are a lot of people you don’t recognize when you’ve been gone for 15, 20 years and then come back, but it’s really great to kind of bring me back to my roots and get a chance to play in the home state.”
MTN Sports: Do you ever get a chance to catch a Havre High game?
Payne: “I have not, no. My family has since moved down to Livingston after I graduated from high school, so that’s kind of where I go home to. With our busy schedule we don’t necessarily get a lot of time to get back home and be on my vacation, so I actually haven’t been back to Havre in a few years.”
MTN Sports: How have you grown as a coach this year, even in the first few games?
Payne: “I think for us, when we took over the program last year it was not in a great place, so for us, it was really about recruiting. I feel like we have a lot of the right kids in, but we’re still trying to change the culture and switch things over from the former regime to the new era of basketball. We’re just really young, too. You look at our starting lineup and we have one senior and one freshman and three sophomores, so for us, it’s really working on our chemistry and trying to figure out different rotations and lineups, how deep we can go with this team and just the things you deal with with a young team.”
MTN Sports: You talked about the new era of basketball, can you touch on the style of play you’re seeing in women’s basketball, even starting at the high school level and coming into the college level?
Payne: “I think it has really moved to a non-positional game where it’s very uptempo, more exciting. That’s a style we want to run. I think for us, it’s getting the right players that fit our system to be able to do that. I think we have those right players, but now we have to teach them how to run an uptempo system, and defensively we really want to turn up the pressure a little bit. I think just transitioning from a team that didn’t really have a lot of organization to now really trying to get them to play within a system. It’s been a challenge, and we’re still going through that and building through that, but we feel really good about the recruits we’ve brought in and are bringing in. We feel like, Rome wasn’t built in a day, so being here in Year 2, we really feel like Year 3, Year 4 is going to be really good for us.”
MTN Sports: When did you fall in love with basketball in Montana? Was it the state that helped you fall in love with it?
Payne: “My gosh, I was young. Absolutely I was young. You look at Montana basketball in general from high school, I played back when girls played in the fall, so there was a lot of great support with basketball. There was a lot of time that you could spend in the gym working on your game. For me, I started falling in love with it at a very young age and started putting a lot of time and effort into it and it definitely paid off for me.”
MTN Sports: Finally, it’s still pretty young in your career as a head coach, but what would you like to accomplish by the end of your career? At a minimum, what would you like to do?
Payne: “I think being around Montana basketball and seeing the legacy that Robin (Selvig) created in Missoula, I think that there’s a lot of things that have to go into place to get a regime like that where you’re winning championship after championship, but that’s the ultimate goal is to win a Big Sky Conference championship, go into the NCAA Tournament and have your players experience that atmosphere. That’s something that I think every coach has a goal to play in that.”
MTN Sports: Anything else you would like to add about being back here and coaching here?
Payne: “No, it’s just great. Montana is a great state and their support for basketball has been phenomenal and it continues to be.”