BILLINGS -- As jubilant players and coaches from Montana Western made their way down the hallway, they were greeted with congratulations and high-fives from their counterparts at Montana State-Northern.
Tournament time forges strange friendships.
“Not during the regular season,” said the Bulldogs’ Kaye Bignell, a Helena native. “But at the tournament time, you root for the Montana teams. Until we play each other.”
UM Western did its part, rallying from an early 11-point deficit to upset Concordia (Missouri) 63-53 in the first round of the NAIA Division I Women’s National Tournament on Wednesday at Rimrock Auto Arena.
“This is awesome … unbelievable,” Bignell said.
The Bulldogs (24-8), ranked No. 21 in the final regular-season NAIA poll, will play eight-time national champion Oklahoma City (30-2) in the second round at 10:45 a.m. Friday. The Stars advanced with a 73-63 win over defending national champion MidAmerica Nazarene. OCU has 67 tournament wins, matching Union (Tennessee) for the most in NAIA Division I history.
Columbia, ranked No. 12 nationally, finishes 26-6. The Cougars were the No. 3 seed in the Cramer Bracket; UM Western is No. 6.
Western is making its first national tournament appearance since 2007. It is the Bulldogs' first win since 2006, when they defeated William Carey (Mississippi) 67-51. Western is 7-8 all-time in the national tournament.
Western outscored Columbia 25-8 in the fourth quarter, including 16-6 in the final five minutes.
The Bulldogs trailed 31-20 in the second quarter.
“I think we came out a little nervous,” Bignell said.
Aniese Palmore led the Bulldogs with 17 points, including two 3-pointers early in the fourth quarter to pull her team even, 47-47.
“Huge,” Bignell said of Palmore’s baskets. “We got some baskets to fall for us in the second half. And heart carried us.”
Consecutive three-point plays by Britt Cooper and Bignell put UM Western in front for good.
Bignell and Palmore combined for 27 second-half points.
“I challenged them at halftime,” coach Lindsay Woolley said of his two senior leaders. “I told them to calm down and start making shots. We’ve been down 10 before this season. In the first half, we had some good looks, but we didn’t finish well.
“Kaye and Aniese played like we needed them to play.”
Bignell delivered a double-double of 11 points and 11 rebounds, eight in the second half. Taylor Howlett added 13 points for the Bulldogs and Britt Cooper had 11 points.
Western made 12 free throws in the final five minutes.
Raegan Wieser led the Cougars with 18 points. Morgan Brandt had 14.