The Saints knew they had to beat Rocky on Saturday.
Carroll had recently dropped out of the Top 25 for the first time this season, falling in their last four conference games -- including three losses by a combined five points. Leading scorer Cassidy Hashley went as far as to call it a curse.
Carroll defended and pounded the ball inside, sending a statement to Rocky as the Saints won 71-50 at the PE Center.
At least for one night, the curse was lifted and the Saints (13-7 overall, 3-5 Frontier) felt their losing frustrations alleviated.
“It has been a grind,” coach Rachelle Sayers said. “I felt so bad for these kids because they play so hard and they’re bought in and they’re loyal to their coaches and teammates.
“They knew this was one we had to get. I’m proud of them.”
Both teams entered the evening with a 2-5 record in Frontier play. The Saints, since scoring their 62-54 win over Rocky (10-10, 2-6) in Billings on Dec.1, have gone 1-4 in league play. Besides a 57-42 loss to Lewis-Clark State, the Saints' three other losses have come down to the game’s final possession, a fateful ending for Carroll in each instance.
On Saturday, Rocky struggled offensively, partially due to leading scorer Mikayla Jones’ absence. The guard has missed the past four games with a leg injury she suffered against MSU-Northern, a game in which she went out of in the first quarter, yet somehow the Battlin’ Bears rallied and knocked off one of the top teams in the Frontier.
“We’re struggling offensively right now,” Rocky Mountain coach Wes Keller said. “We’re having a hard time scoring offensively. You gotta give Carroll credit. They took it to us inside. The biggest thing is we’re not finding ways to score the basketball.”
Carroll dominated the paint and set the tone early. Carroll had 32 points in the paint for the game.
Hannah Dean powered the Saints in the early going, hitting twisting layups and 10-foot jumpers, accounting for eight early points as the Saints jumped out to a slight lead. Dean collected herself and made plays for the Saints late into the shot clock on several possessions, bailing out her team when the offense didn’t necessarily generate wide-open shots.
“It’s been tough for our posts,” Sayers said. “They’ve been seeing something different every game. Just to get them to be comfortable and confident going to their moves. Some teams pick and choose their poison. Western went single coverage a lot and then doubled it when we put it on the ground. A lot of teams are doing different things. Hannah did a good job of attacking and facing up early.”
Still, Rocky held on.
Rocky’s Justyn Juhl helped the Bears exchange leads and maintain distance on the Saints early on, scoring five points in the game’s opening quarter.
The Saints and Rocky went deadlocked into the second quarter at 15.
Dean kept her aggression up in the second quarter, finding her way to the free-throw line. Even when the Saints went to Cassidy Hashley in the opposite block, Dean found ways to rebound misses and get back to the line. Dean went 3 for 4 in the first half and was the only Saint to make a trip to the charity stripe.
"Hannah is such a good passer,” Sayers said. “She makes everything so easy on the perimeter. She hits guards. She hits posts. She can shoot it. She’s a matchup nightmare. When she’s really aggressive she does great things for us. We’ve talked a lot about her and her foul trouble. When we lose her, it changes the dynamics of a game for us. That was probably the biggest difference was Hannah staying in the game and allowing us to execute the things we wanted to execute.”
Just when it seemed the Saints would pound the Battlin’ Bears into submission, Sara Chalich and Hashley diversified the offense and hit a pair of 3-pointers, giving the Saints a 24-15 lead.
Carroll started the quarter on a 16-2 run, with Dean capping off the spurt with some playmaking from the high post, dishing a dime to Baylee Watson on a backdoor cut.
The Saints slaughtered the Bears in the paint and all the while Rocky chose not to double down on the Saints' clearly stronger front court. Whenever the Saints went inside, they found space and single coverage, a post player’s dream come true. The Saints ended the first half with 22 points in the paint while fortifying their own post area, allowing Rocky to record eight points inside.
“I was very surprised especially when Hannah went 5 for 5,” Hashley said of not seeing additional defensive pressure. “I expected them to change up. I was very surprised. Good for us.”
The Saints outscored Rocky 24-10 in the second quarter and looked to have the Battlin’ Bears fully solved. The scoring outburst comes in stark contrast to the Saints’ second quarter against No. 25 Montana Western on Thursday when Carroll only put up two points.
“We had saved some points from the Western second quarter; if you remember we only scored two points,” Sayers kidded. “So we had some extra points. We had a few left to get.”
While Dean, who finished with 17 points and nine rebounds, delivered the most damage in the first half, Hashley seized the scoring responsibility in the second. Hashley started the third quarter off invigorated, scoring six of the Saints' first eight points of the period.
Hashley finished the game with 15 points and 10 rebounds.
Bailey Pasta’s 3-point stroke came to life in the third quarter as the speedy guard hit two 3s in quick succession. Pasta would finish the game with 13 points and seven assists.
The Saints bled the Battlin’ Bears out in the fourth quarter, matching every score with an equalizer and maintaining firm control of the game.
“You lose those games and you have two choices,” Sayers said. “You can bury yourselves and feel sorry for yourself and they can start pointing fingers and play the blame game or they can come together and decide we have had enough. I think that’s the choice they made. “
The Saints will play Rocky, in Billings, once more, on Feb. 18.