Despite battling an illness for several weeks, Torrie Cahill had never felt better than she did Thursday night.
The Carroll College senior was all smiles after her team knocked off third-ranked Westminster 52-43, celebrating with her teammates at center court and hugging her coach outside the locker room.
As far as upsets go, this one was sweet.
“Coming out from tip I was exhausted within the first few minutes,” said Cahill, who has been dealing with an energy-sapping stomach infection. “Now, with all the adrenaline, I feel like I could go out and play another half.”
After falling to the Frontier Conference-champion Griffins by more than 30 points last month, few could have predicted what went down in the P.E. Center on Thursday in front of a television audience. But watching the Saints from the sidelines in practice all week, Cahill — who scored a game-high 17 points in the program-defining victory — said she knew something special was going to happen.
“I could tell they wanted it,” she said of her teammates. “This is the best win I’ve had all time, no doubt about it, and I won a state championship (for Miles City) in high school. Never experienced anything as big as this.”
The Saints wrapped up second place in the conference and earned a bye to the Frontier tournament semifinals. They will host an undetermined opponent next Friday. And if they play defense the way they did on Thursday, coaches, players and fans know the sky is the limit.
Carroll’s stifling defense limited the league-leading Griffins to just 29 percent shooting and 43 points. Westminster, which saw its 16-game winning streak come to an end, had been averaging a league-best 65 points per game and shooting a Frontier-high 44 percent. And despite being the best free-throw shooting team in the conference and fifth-best in the country, the Griffins just couldn’t get a foul shot to fall in this one. Westminster shot just 59 percent from the stripe, while the Saints beat them at their own game with 82 percent free-throw shooting, including 18 of 21 in the second half.
“They were huge, especially down the stretch,” Saints coach Rachelle Sayers said of the free throws. “(Westminster) hasn’t been in a close game since preseason, and we’ve had to play from behind and play from ahead and hold on. I think that really was an advantage for us tonight.”
The game was back and forth early on, but the visitors never could get ahead by more than one possession. The Saints took a three-point lead off a Megan Patterson trey with 9:55 let in the first and never trailed the rest of the game. The Griffins tied it up at 28-all midway through the second half, but Carroll answered with a 7-0 run courtesy of post Joey O’Neill. A 3-pointer by Westminster’s Tia Pappas made it a one-possession game with 6:35 to go, but the hosts never let them get closer than that the rest of the way.
“We just had a really solid effort defensively,” said O’Neill, who finished with 11 points, seven rebounds and two blocked shots. “That was the most complete game we’ve played all season.”
O’Neill seemingly took the game into her own hands in the second half, playing inspired basketball on both ends of the floor.
“That’s the best game I’ve ever seen her play,” Sayers said. “She defended the paint, she frustrated them inside, she rebounded and blocked shots, then she hit her free throws. I couldn’t be prouder.”
Cydney Tibbits scored 16 to lead the Griffins. Do-everything player Nicole Yazzie scored nine points, but finished with zero assists and just a single steal, well below her averages. As a team, Westminster finished with just one assist total. And despite the Griffins’ big-rebounding advantage in the first meeting, Carroll dominated the glass in this one, 39-34, and pulled down an impressive 14 offensive rebounds to control the contest. Point guard Kalee Junkermier pulled down a team-high nine boards for Carroll.
“I thought our kids absolutely, 100 percent bought into the game plan,” Sayers said. “We thought we could (win this), but after the first game I wasn’t so sure. We knew we had to come out and take them out of what they do best ... you can’t let them get into the paint and run their motion. We had to make them one-on-one players and I thought we did that.
“This is a huge win for our program and an even bigger one for our seniors.”
“I’ve never been so proud of my team, seeing them hustle down the floor with all they have, knowing what’s at stake,” Cahill said. “They helped me take my mind off being tired.”
O’Neill said the 67-36 setback in Salt Lake City spurred a strong week of practice and was never far from their minds.
“For a lot of us, we remembered the taste we had in our mouths after that game,” she said. “This is huge. To have a win against a great team like Westminny, that gives us a lot of confidence going forward.”
Carroll closes out the regular season with a home game against Lewis-Clark State on Saturday. Players know well that a rematch with No. 1 seed Westminster could be on the near horizon, likely with hardware and a trip to the national tournament on the line.
“It’s not over yet, this isn’t the end,” O’Neill said. “We’ll enjoy it for now, but we have to get back to work tomorrow. There’s still a lot of basketball to play.”
NOTES: Thursday’s win ended Westminster’s school-record string of 22 straight Frontier Conference wins dating back to last season. ... The Griffins also saw their streak of 162 consecutive games with a made 3-pointer come to an end as they finished 0 for 12 from beyond the arc. That marked the first time since a loss to Carroll at the 2008 Frontier Conference Tournament that had happened. ... The Griffins had held their last 15 opponents to 50 points or less prior to the game against Carroll.
CARROLL 52, WESTMINSTER 43
Westminster (24-3, 13-1) - Kelsi Wells 0-2 0-0 0, Cydney Tibbits 5-9 6-8 16, Brooke Larsen 1-7 3-4 5, Allie Eastman 0-5 0-0 0, Nicole Yazzie 4-13 1-3 9, Katie Walker 0-1 0-0 0, Amy Krommenhoek 0-2 0-0 0, Kelsi Wells 1-1 0-0 2, Tia Pappas 4-11 3-7 11. Team totals 15-51 13-22 43.
Carroll (18-8, 12-3) - Joey O’Neill 3-4 5-6 11, Torrie Cahill 5-10 7-9 17, Kalee Junkermier 2-9 0-0 4, Megan Patterson 2-8 3-4 8, Bailey Snelling 1-6 4-4 6, Katie Estey 0-1 0-0 0, Jordan Pfau 1-2 0-0 2, Jordan Johnston 0-0 0-0 0, Jordan Bagley 2-4 0-0 4. Totals 16-44 19-23 52.
Halftime - Carroll 20, Westminster 19.
3-pointers - Westminster 0-11 (Tibbits 0-1, Eastman 0-2, Yazzie 0-6, Krommenhoek 0-1, Pappas 0-1); CC 1-8 (Cahill 0-1, Junkermier 0-1, Patterson 1-3, Snelling 0-1, Pfau 0-1, Bagley 0-1). Rebounds - Westminster 34 (Tibbits 9, Larsen 8); CC 39 (Junkermier 9). Assists - Westminster 1 (Larsen); CC 4 (Snelling 2). Blocks - Westminster 1 (Pappas); CC 3 (O’Neill 2). Turnovers - Westminster 12, CC 16. Personal fouls - Westminster 17, CC 20. Fouled out - Pappas. Technicals - none.