BUTTE -- It will be hard to determine what truly spelled the Saints’ demise.
Carroll College, playing in its third game in five days, fell to the fifth-seeded Montana Tech Orediggers 78-64 on Tuesday in the quarterfinals of the Frontier Conference playoffs.
Yes, the Orediggers were better than Carroll this season. Their 3-1 record proves that. Tech won three games in Butte and fell to Carroll in the PE Center.
“I don’t think it had anything to do with anything other than the fact that Tech came in and played a great, great game,” Saints coach Rachelle Sayers said. “Obviously it’s an advantage to play Thursday and then not play again until Tuesday. Where we had to travel to LC and drive back and then turn around and play again.
“I think it was more about Tech and less about what we did or didn’t do.”
Tech’s schedule did break favorably in the final week of the season. The Orediggers arranged a one-game finale, against Carroll (18-13), to close out the season. The situation: Win and host a playoff game, or lose and head to Carroll.
Prior to the playoff game, the Saints traveled approximately 900 miles in a bus in five days. Practice time was sparse. And, perhaps more importantly, recovery time limited. Yes, these are college athletes, but nobody is immune to tired legs.
“I didn’t feel like it until I saw how easily we were getting beat down the lane and getting beat off the ball,” Sayers said of possible signs of fatigue. “Obviously it played a factor, but I don’t want to take away from Tech. I thought Tech’s seniors came out and laid it out on the line and played a great game. (Hattie) Thatcher and (Martha) Dembek just took it at us all night.”
Montana Tech jumped on Carroll early, popping out to a 10-3 lead in the game’s first three minutes. Tech carved Carroll’s defense up early, finding driving lanes to the hoop to come away with layups. The Orediggers (16-14) blasted their way into the paint, scoring 19 first-quarter points in the paint.
“It was huge,” Tech coach Carly Sanon said. “We came out and we talked about when we play them we have to make them play our tempo. That’s gotta get up and down, gotta pressure and then we gotta push the ball. We got some steals that really put a lot of pressure on them to start the game, which kind of what their guards on their heels. We moved the ball very, very well.”
To cap off a brutal first quarter for the Saints, the Orediggers secured a steal and drew a foul with seconds left, earning a trip to the free throw line. The Orediggers finished the period shooting 85 percent from the field.
“I seriously think that was the best quarter we played of basketball,” Thatcher said.
“We did get a little bit stagnant in the second quarter, so we were trying to work on that in halftime. And then I think we just pulled it together and got it done.”
It hardly slowed down in the second quarter, either. The Orediggers generated high-quality shots and continued thriving on the inside of Carroll’s defense.
Hannah Dean picked up her third foul on a seemingly blocked shot in the second quarter. Taylor Salonen spelled her. Dean’s eight points, four rebounds and two assists became moot on the bench.
Even with the Orediggers’ hot shooting, the Saints ended the quarter on a 12-3 run.
Dembek led all scorers in the first half with 14 points, while the Saints got 11 from point guard Bailey Pasta.
“With our quickness on the perimeter we’re working really hard on catching and ripping,” Sanon said. “We say when we attack we have to get a piece of the paint. When you get a piece of the paint, other people have to help and then we can make that extra pass or then the next time you go you can get all the way to rim. We had to keep attacking and attacking.
Dembek and Thatcher, Tech’s senior standout guards, led the Orediggers into the paint time and time again.
“During warmups we were super loose and relaxed. We were just having fun. There were a few of us that knew we weren’t going to lose this game. We came out and that’s just what happened.
Carroll’s defense tightened up in the latter portion of the second quarter, and that carried over into the second half. Halfway through the third quarter the Saints yielded only four points. At the same point in the first quarter, Tech put up 20 points. Part of that was due to Carroll’s mixture of zone defenses.
“They went to zone and that got us on our heels,” Sanon said. “We stopped attacking. We stopped getting into the paint. We were holding the ball a lot more. We talked about that at halftime. We talked about how we needed to get the ball inside to move the zone.”
However, Tech found lanes to the basket again, and again struck from beyond the arc. Tech finished the game 6 of 11 from 3-point range.
Carroll could never threaten the Orediggers after that, in part due to 17 turnovers.
“It’s a huge rivalry,” Sanon said. “I told the girls before the game my two favorite times of the year are rivalry week and tournament time. To play your rival in the first game of the tournament makes it even better.”
Dembek finished 8 of 9 from the field for 22 points and Thatcher 8 of 12 to tie a season-high 21. Thatcher also dished out seven assists.
The Saints got 18 points, five rebounds and three assists from Dean and 13 points from Pasta to go along with 12 points from Michaela Dowdy. Standout forward Cassidy Hashley finished with eight points and 10 rebounds.
Tech and Carroll met five days earlier in Butte, as the Orediggers claimed a 58-50 win. The win had added importance: Tech earned the right to host this playoff game, grabbing the No. 4 seed in the Frontier and relegating the Saints to the fifth spot.
Carroll entered the game on a three-game losing skid, having fallen to No. 12 MSU-Northern, No. 2 Lewis-Clark State and Tech to close out the regular season.
The loss stung for a multitude or reasons, but in part because the Saints will say goodbye to senior forward Baylee Watson and redshirt junior Julie Caputo.
A dejected crew of Saints did not have many words, hovering near Kelvin Sampson Court afterward and embracing family members who trekked to Butte.
Elsewhere in the building, a fan approached Sanon mid-interview after the game, imploring the coach to “go get them,” No. 2 Lewis-Clark State College, the Orediggers' next postseason matchup.
“Never know,” the man said.
“Never know,” the coach agreed.
The Orediggers’ postseason hopes were alive; The Saints’ hopes, buried.