BILLINGS -- Montana State-Northern needed a spark and Molly Kreycik dropped the bomb.
The senior guard made a 3-pointer from beyond half-court at the end of the first quarter to give the Skylights a jolt and added a crucial 3-pointer in the fourth quarter to help her team’s loud 60-55 win over Loyola (La.) on Thursday night in the first round of the NAIA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament at Rimrock Auto Arena.
MSU-Northern (24-8), ranked 11th nationally, will play the winner of Vanguard and Lindenwood-Belleville at 9:45 p.m. on Friday.
It is the 10th time that the Skylights have reached the round of 16.
MSU-Northern became the third Frontier Conference team to reach the second round, joining Montana Western and Lewis-Clark State.
The Wolf Pack finished 26-7.
Kreycik’s half-court shot was nothing new.
“We practiced it this morning at our shoot-around,” she said. “It’s part of a game we do at the end of practice. That was a little further back than I was practicing. I might have to move a few feet back.
“When it left my hand, I knew it had a chance. As it headed toward the rim, it was looking good. I was just glad to get the shot off at the buzzer.”
Kreycik’s shot left the Skylights trailing 18-13 entering the second quarter. MSU-Northern responded with a 14-4 run to take the lead.
“It was a momentum builder,” said Skylight head coach Chris Mouat. “It gave us some life. I was just happy it counted.”
Kreycik’s second big 3-pointer came midway in the fourth quarter and MSU-Northern clinging to a one-point lead. Her clutch basket gave the Skylights some breathing room.
“I think every shot is big for us,” said Kreycik, who finished with eight points and five assists. “We had some bench kids come in and make some big plays for us.”
Natalee Faupel led MSU-Northern with a game-high 27 points, while Sierra Richards had 10 rebounds.
MSU-Northern limited Loyola to 10 offensive rebounds, seven below their average and the 55 points is 22 points below their season average.
“Our kids thrive on one-shot possessions,” said Mouat. “We did a good job defensively. We knew who their shooters were. They have some kids who can step out and really shoot.”
Zoie Miller, at 5-2 the shortest player on the court, led Loyola with 17 points. She also had four steals. The Wolf Pack shot just 29 percent from the field.
There were seven lead changes and five ties in the tense game.
“They’re very quick and very athletic,” said Kreycik. “We stayed composed. We play a lot of close games in the Frontier Conference. We call it our comfort zone.”
NOTES: It is the Skylights' first national tournament win since 2015 when they defeated Southern-New Orleans in the second round. MSU-Northern lost to Benedictine (Kan.) in the first round of last year’s tournament … Montana Western returned the favor from Wednesday night, greeting MSU-Northern in the hallway after the Skylights' win.