With a send-off party to see them out, the Carroll College women's basketball team began its march toward a national championship.
A group of host families gathered in Carroll's new meeting rooms of the PE Center, enjoyed pizza and ice cream and most importantly served as a remainder: The Saints are in rare company when they take the court at the NAIA women’s championship in Billings.
“I wanted them to understand how special this is,” Saints coach Rachelle Sayers said. “I don’t know if anybody thought we’d be in this situation.”
Sayers speaks, of course, about the Saints (24-7) being picked as a mid-tier Frontier Conference team, losing three starting-caliber players, winning the conference outright in the regular season and then following it up with a conference tournament championship.
The NAIA selection committee rewarded their body of work with a three-seed and a first-round matchup with No. 6-seed William Penn (23-8) 8 p.m. Thursday. The Statesmen qualified for the tournament by finishing as the runner-up in the Heart of America Conference.
“They’re athletic,” Sayers said. “They have two really, really good shooters, which his going to cause our zone to extend out and work out. They have a post player that can get to the rim and she’s a big time offensive rebounder. We’re going to have to stay out of foul trouble guarding her. She’s quick. She’s athletic. She’s strong. They put a lot of points on the board.”
Forward Vashti Nwagbaraocha leads the Statesmen in scoring with 16.3 points per game. Guard Sarah Hansen is right there, too, averaging 15.3 points per game.
William Penn brings the No. 5-ranked 3-point percentage in the NAIA into the tournament (38 percent).
Carroll will once again call upon its stellar rebounding and defense to carry the Saints again. Carroll is No 2 in defensive rebounding (30.8 per game) and No. 4 in defense (52 points per game allowed).
Leading up to that matchup with William Penn, the Saints took a detour in Absarokee, Sayers’ hometown where she jumpstarted her basketball career. It was important for Sayers to relate to her small-town players, and help demonstrate to the players from more populous areas just how important basketball is to tight-knit communities.
The Saints went through an open practice in Absarokee, bringing the town together. They’ll practice in Billings once more before the tournament tips. They’ll have partaken in NAIA Champions of Character events leading up to tipoff, too.
It’s all remainders of how special this team and season have been for the Saints.
And it’s not just the Saints. Carroll is the top of four Frontier Conference teams going to Billings, sure, but Sayers takes a ton of pride being one of four schools advancing to the 32-team grand finale.
“Even though Rocky is the host, they would’ve gotten a bid to go,” Sayers said. “It shows the power of the conference. It shows how strong the conference is. I think LC State was right on the bubble. We could have got five of seven in. Had LC state been able to pull off a win at our place in the semis, they probably would have been in as well.”
Each member of the Frontier benefits from the collective strength. Carroll certainly did, competing in a tough nonconference and then running through a gauntlet in the Frontier.
“We’ve played ranked teams all year whether it was preseason or conference play,” Sayers said. “I think our kids are confident. They understand we’ve played a high level of competition all year.”
For Carroll’s seniors, Bailey Pasta and Michaela Dowdy, it’s their third tournament in four years.
“It’s great for them as seniors to take in one more,” Sayers said. “We’re going to enjoy it. These guys have worked extremely hard.”