BOISE, Idaho — Montana State nearly swept the postseason awards for the Big Sky Conference, including junior Tori Martell earning Top Reserve honors as the Bobcats bulldozed through the regular season.
But Tricia Binford has said all season long that her team has a pair of premier reserves. And on Wednesday evening with her team’s season hanging in the balance, Blaire Braxton showed why her head coach thinks so highly of her.
Montana State’s senior center and emotional leader dove on the court, getting her hand on an inbounds pass by Caitlyn Malvar and deflecting it enough that MSU freshman Madison Jackson could scoop it up.
That forced turnover with 18.3 seconds left and the league champions clinging to a three-point lead proved to be enough. Senior Oliana Squires hit a pair of free throws on MSU’s final offensive possession and the top-seeded Bobcats moved into the Big Sky Tournament championship game with a 76-71 victory over fifth-seeded NAU in the first semifinal Wednesday at CenturyLink Arena.
“The resilience of this team, we continue to get everybody’s best punch and this team finds ways,” Binford, MSU’s 15th-year head coach, said following her team’s 17th straight win.
“I’m here to tell you that we have two top reserves on this team. The other top reserve is Blaire Braxton. She’s been phenomenal for us. She has been doing this all year long, on the glass, on defense and when we asked this team to buy into what we needed to do defensively, it started last spring and it started with Blaire and this senior class.”
Braxton, who is one of three MSU seniors who were freshmen the last time the Bobcats won the Big Sky Tournament, gave MSU a lift throughout the game. She and fellow senior Madeline Smith have made up the Big Sky’s toughest center platoon, a key to MSU overwhelming opponents with their depth.
Wednesday with Smith struggling — she finished 2-of-8 in 16 minutes of play, battling foul trouble most of the game — Braxton came in and did everything MSU needed her to do.
“Blaire does so much for this team that is not noticed, so much that is not on stat sheets,” MSU senior Fallyn Freije said. “In practice, she is keeping the team together. She is doing a lot of stuff of the court for the team. She is there for everybody. She is totally the glue of this team and for her to have that big of a steal at the end of the game just shows she’s going to play every position as hard as she can.”
Braxton finished with 11 points on a perfect 3-of-3 shooting from the floor and 5-of-5 from the free throw line. She pulled down a game-high nine rebounds. And perhaps most importantly, she was the primary defender on NAU junior Khiarica Rasheed, a first-team All-Big Sky selection who led the league in scoring this season. MSU held the bullish post to six points below her season average.
“At the beginning of the game, we get in our huddle after they call our starting lineup and today, a big emphasis was every hustle play, every 50/50 ball, every rebound is ours,” Braxton said. “I think we did that.
“But I can’t preach it if I don’t do it. There was however much time left on the clock and I said, ‘Let me get this ball out of one of their best players’ hands. It was a team effort. There was ball pressure on the court. I was just the one that ended up being there to dive on that.”
The victory moves Montana State into the tournament championship game. The Bobcats earned the No. 1 seed by posting a 19-1 record in conference play, setting the Big Sky record for league wins in the process. MSU survived Northern Colorado’s upset bid in the quarterfinals and Wednesday’s upset bid by the upstart Lumberjacks.
“Everybody wants to play in that championship game and this is where you bring it and this is when it is really fun,” Binford said. “The team just felt different for me today. Yesterday, we felt jittery at shoot around and needed to get that first game under our belts. Today, this team looked like this is a business trip, it’s time to go to work.”
Facing extra attention when she operated out of the high post for the second game in a row, Big Sky MVP Fallyn Freije still managed to score 14 points. But it took her 17 shots to get there.
Squires missed eight of her first nine shots before scoring four crucial points in the fourth quarter to help MSU stay ahead. MSU’s five seniors combined to shoot 15-of-42 (35.7 percent).
Every time the Bobcats needed a boost, they once again turned to their sparkplug point guard playing back in her hometown for the first time as a collegian. Darian White, the league’s Freshman of the Year, continued building her resume as the MVP of this tournament by once again carrying the day for Montana State.
A day after scoring 19 points and hitting five clutch free throws to put away UNC, White again used her speed, savvy and unbelievable confidence to push the pace and keep the Lumberjacks on their heels.
White scored 15 of her game-high 19 points in the second half, including nine in the fourth quarter. Her 3-pointer with seven minutes, 24 seconds left sparked a 6-0 run that helped MSU take a 65-55 lead. Her old-fashioned 3-point play with four minutes left put MSU up 70-61. And her final layup through contact put Montana State up 74-68 with 1:48 left.
“It’s so phenomenal to watch what she does every single game,” Freije said. “I always tell her to enjoy it now because when you are a fifth-year senior, you are not going to be that fast (laughs). That’s my excuse.
“She’s just so dang fun to play with. It’s not just offense for her. She busts her butt like that on defense, too. She just goes, goes, goes. I don’t know how she does it, I don’t know where all her energy comes from every game. It’s just so fun to know she’s going to push and push every game. That’s a huge part of everyone else pushing just as hard.”
White is arguably the fastest player in the entire conference. Her ability to sprint at the basket while taking care of the basketball is peerless among Big Sky point guards. And her fearlessness attacking the hoop — she was hammered so hard four different times Wednesday, she smashed her entire body on the floor — is a spectacle to behold.
On multiple occasions, she got up off the hardwood shaking her wrist after taking a hard fall, only to lock back in on defense, continue competing and showing the mentality that makes Binford admire her so much.
“Darian just is…she is hard to explain,” Binford said. “The kid is timely. She is a winner. She is special. When we need stops, she finds a way to get a steal. When we need a bucket, she finds a way to get points, she finds a way to get to the rim or she finds her teammates. This team is having a lot of fun together.”
NAU sophomore Nina Radford, a transfer from Santa Clara who earned league Newcomer of the Year honors earlier this week, kept NAU in it, particularly in the third quarter.
She hit back-to-back 3-pointers to help the Lumberjacks cut a nine-point deficit to 48-45 with three minutes left in the frame. She also hit a clutch jump shot with 7:55 remaining to cut the gap to 59-55. She finished with a game-high 21 points.
Rasheed didn’t score in the first half and scored nine of her 13 points in the fourth quarter. She hit a 3-pointer with 3:08 left to shave the gap to 72-66. And Lauren Orndoff, the only senior in NAU’s starting lineup, converted a 3-point play with 1:39 left to set up the final scenario with NAU trailing 74-71. Orndoff finished with 14 points.
NAU’s season finishes with a 17-14 record. The Lumberjacks’ 12 league victories tied for the second-most in school history. And Northern Arizona advanced to the semifinals for the first time since 2007 in Loree Payne’s third season at the helm.
“Every time I hear our starting lineup introduced, it’s junior, junior, junior, sophomore,” Payne said. “We have pretty much 99 percent of our production coming back next year, which is exciting. We have a couple of new faces to add to that as well. We are happy with the state of this program.
“It’s tough to say that because I felt that if we could’ve put together our top games, we could’ve gone a little further and maybe could’ve been playing on Friday night. To see where this program was three years ago when we took it over to where it is now, if you look at the full body of work, we are happy that we have the right kids in to cultivate a championship program.”
Montana State now turns the page with some lofty accomplishments on the horizon if the Bobcats can take care of business on Friday. MSU can tie the record for victories in a single season with one more win, moving their total to 26. MSU can also advance to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in school history, including the second time under Binford.
“We will just do everything we do every day,” Braxton said. “We are prepared, we have been prepared and we will make sure everybody is in the same mindset. I don’t think there’s much we can do anything extra. We have been in tough situations, two double-overtime games, an overtime game in Dahlberg Arena. We are more than prepared.
“We have great senior leadership. We just want to play the game like a regular game and do what we do every night is the most important part for us.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.