(Billings, Mont.) In front of a packed house at the Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark, the No. 6 seed Loyola University New Orleans women’s basketball team squared off against the No. 3 seed Montana State University-Northern in the opening round of the 2017 NAIA Division I Women’s Basketball National Championship, presented by Wells Fargo.
Making its fourth-straight appearance in the national tournament, the No. 22 Wolf Pack faced off against a No. 11 Skylights team that entered the tournament at 23-8 overall. Thursday’s matchup was the first meeting ever between these two programs and the third time (0-2) that the Wolf Pack has faced a team out of the Frontier Conference on the national stage.
Despite holding an 18-13 lead after the first 10 minutes of action, Loyola was unable to contain MSUN’s Natalee Faupel down the stretch, as the Frontier Conference’s leading scorer poured in 27 points and grabbed nine rebounds to push the Skylights into the second round with a 60-55 victory on Thursday evening.
Both teams struggled to find the bottom of the net to start the game and score stayed at 0-0 until a free throw by Kylah Jones (SR/Houston, Texas) at the 6:48 mark put Loyola up 1-0. Faupel answered back with a solo 4-0 run to give the Skylights the 4-1 advantage with just under five to play in the opening quarter. With her team down three, Zoie Miller (JR/Frisco, Texas) would score nine of her teams next 11 points to give Loyola the 12-7 lead with 2:44 to play. Paige Franckiewicz (FR/Slidell, La.) knocked down a triple with just four seconds to play and it appeared that the Wolf Pack would take the 18-10 advantage after the opening quarter.
The Skylight’s Molly Kreycik has other plans, however, as the guard sank a three-pointer from 75-feet away to bring MSUN within five at 18-13.
The Skylights scored the first five points of the second quarter to knot the game at 18-all before Temple handed Loyola the lead back (22-18) with back-to-back layups. With the score tied at 22-22, MSUN manufactured a 5-0 spurt to grab the 27-22 lead with just 24 seconds to play in the half. Miller would once again deliver for Loyola when it needed her most, by ending the half with four-straight free throws to cut the Skylights’ advantage to a single point at 27-26.
Miller was responsible for half of the Wolf Pack’s 26 first-half points, which led to a 17-3 advantage in bench scoring after the first 20 minutes. Both teams struggled from the floor in the opening half, with Loyola converting on just 7-of-28 (25%) shoots while MSUN only managed to drop in 8-of-24 (33%) attempts.
Following a jumper in the lane by Faupel at the 8:41 mark, the trio of Di’Mond Jackson (JR/Baton Rouge, La.), Franziewicz, and Jackie Anderson (SR/San Antonio, Texas) would combine to score the next seven points in the game to give Loyola its first lead of the second half at 35-32 (6:40). Temple dropped in a layup to put the Wolf Pack up 39-38 with 2:25 to play before a 6-0 MSUN run gave the Skylights the 44-39 cushion heading into the final 10 minutes of action.
Faupel managed to put her team up 46-41 at the 6:55 mark with a jumper but the Wolf Pack answered right back by stringing together five-straight points to get it within one (47-46) with just over six minutes remaining. The Wolf Pack was able to trim the deficit to four with 1:17 to play but the team would be forced to foul with time running out. MSUN sealed the game by going 6-for-6 from the charity stripe to give the Skylights the hard-fought 60-55 victory in the opening round.
Entering the game as the team’s leading scorer, Miller once again led the Wolf Pack in scoring with 17 points off the bench. Thursday marked the 22nd time this season that the junior has scored in double figures overall and the 15th time in the last 16 outings.
Franckiewicz, Temple, and Kaila Anthony (FR/Pflugerville, Texas) each collected eight points on Thursday with Temple also grabbing a team-high eight rebounds and three blocks. Temple will leave Loyola as the program’s all-time leader in both rebounds (1011) and career rejections (131), as well as the only women’s basketball player in Loyola history with 1000 points and 1000 rebounds.
In their final game wearing the maroon the gold, Jones and Anderson combined for seven points and three rebounds on Thursday.
As a team, Loyola shot 19-of-66 (28.8%) from the floor and 4-of-15 (27%) from beyond the arc. The Wolf Pack was outrebounded 46-34 in Billings but managed to outscore the Skylight’s 25-8 in bench points.
With the loss, Loyola ends the 2016-17 campaign at 26-7 overall and falls to 4-9 all-time at the national championship.
Although not the ending they were hoping for, Loyola can take pride in the year it put together this season. Under the direction of Southern States Athletic Conference (SSAC) Coach of the Year Kellie Kennedy, the Wolf Pack won a program-best 25 games in the regular season en route to claiming its second SSAC Regular Season title.
Coming into tonight’s game pacing her conference with 17 points per game, Faupel led all players with 27 points on 9-of-18 shooting from the floor.
The victory improves Montana State-Northern to 11-13 all-time at the national championships, including a 9-5 mark in first round contests. MSUN will advance to take on the winner of this evening’s No. 2 seed Vanguard and No. 7 Lindenwood-Belleville game tomorrow at 9:45 p.m.