Editor’s Note: This story is the next installment in a series of feature stories about some of the top players, coaches, storylines and history of the Big Sky Tournament. The league’s postseason gets underway on March 9, 2020 in Boise, Idaho.
The chemistry of a basketball team can be among the most delicate formulas for a team finding success. With a roster featuring three stalwart seniors, two more seniors who began their careers elsewhere, a junior expected to accept a role off the bench and a trio of eager freshmen who would have to play key minutes, Tricia Binford entered the summer session of practices nearly a year ago knowing she and her staff had their work cut out for them.
Entering her 15th season as Montana State’s head women’s basketball coach, Binford knew she had talent up and down her roster. But meshing that talent is easier said than done, particularly when redefining roles for previously proven players.
Oliana Squires, Blaire Braxton and Madeline Smith all contributed on MSU’s Big Sky Conference championship team during the 2016-2017 season as freshmen. Three years later, they have been the foundation of a team that enters the Big Sky Tournament in Boise, Idaho the second week of March with the No. 1 seed.
Last season, Seton Hall transfers Claire Lundberg and Martha Kuderer fit into Montana State’s existing roster seamlessly. But Lundberg’s season-ending knee injury derailed MSU’s season.
Last summer however, Binford knew the meshing would be the key to a roster she felt had championship level talent. Fallyn Freije, a two-time All-Big Sky selection at North Dakota, sat out last season after transferring. How would she fit into the mix for a team that returned four players, including junior sharpshooter Tori Martell, with starting experience? Braxton, one of MSU’s most inspirational leaders, would likely also have to take a reserve role like Martell. Would her vocal guidance translate while platooning with Smith?
And how would Montana State’s five seniors accept another trio of freshmen that would be relied on to produce right away?
From the first few practices of the summer, any worry Binford had evaporated, instead transforming into optimism for what the latest iteration of Binford’s Bobcats could become.
Freshmen Darian White, Kola Bad Bear and Madison Jackson showed natural and consistent competitiveness during the early practices. The team endured a grueling non-conference schedule where breakthroughs eluded them. And as the Big Sky schedule has unfolded, the Bobcats have gone from potential contender to front-runner to absolute juggernaut with the postseason beginning this week in Boise, Idaho.
“The freshmen have earned the respect of the upper classmen by coming to work every single day,” said Binford, who was named the Big Sky Coach of the Year for the second time in her career on Monday. “I thought they were very contagious from the very first practice. Meshing in Fallyn Freije, all of the players new to the program earned the respect of the returning players by being great teammates and by competing every single day.”
Freije was voted as the Big Sky preseason Player of the Year even though she sat out last season. But that caused no animosity among the other Bobcats. Instead, she earned the postseason Big Sky Player of the Year on Monday.
Martell had no qualms about coming off the bench. Squires made no argument shifting to playing more off the ball so White could be the primary ball handler for Binford’s four out, one-in offense. Kuderer bought into being relied upon for her defense as much as her shooting. Smith has consistently produced offensively while basically splitting the game down the middle with Braxton. And Freije has risen to the occasion as the rare consummate captain who leads both vocally and by example.
“The best part about this team is we all play for each other,” said Squires, a native of Colorado Springs, Colorado who has scored 1,163 points in her career. “We all fight for each other, we play for each other and I think that’s what is so special about this team.”
Success came early but not consistently during Montana State’s non-conference schedule. The Bobcats breeze through four straight victories over Division II Northwest Nazarene, UC Davis of the Big West and a pair of Frontier Conference teams from the NAIA.
Then the tests became elite. MSU lost six of its next seven games, but there’s more to the story. The Bobcats looked competitive at perennial Summit League power South Daktoa State (a 60-50 loss) and at Minnesota (71-60 loss), a Big Ten squad that has been in and out of the Top 25 this season.
MSU’s lone win came with a 73-65 win at Seattle U. The Bobcats faded late but did not look overwhelmed in a 70-55 loss to Gonzaga in Bozeman. The Bulldogs were ranked No. 17 in the country at the time and are currently ranked No. 11.
At the Puerto Rico Coqui Classic, MSU went down to the wire in a 66-64 loss to Wichita State. In their final game in Puerto Rico, Montana trailed No. 11 Texas A&M 62-60 midway through the fourth quarter in a 78-67 loss.
“There’s something to be said when you don’t get the early success with those games and you have to suffer the losses to keep you hungry and keep you motivated,” Binford said in January. “Watching back those games, we saw some of those down the stretch situations weren’t necessarily a (Texas A&M three-time All-American) Chennedy Carter is beating us. When you are in live action, you feel like she took over but then we watch back and we didn’t execute our jobs like we have throughout the game.
“I knew that stretch would be good for us.”
And it has been. Since the beginning of conference play, Montana State’s lone loss is a 69-68 double-overtime setback against reigning regular-season champion Idaho in Bozeman.
Since then, Montana State has ripped off 15 straight victories, the most in the history of the program. And MSU is doing it in dominant fashion. The Bobcats are winning Big Sky contests by an average of 18.4 points per game. The team leads the league in scoring offense (81.1 points per game) and is third in scoring defense (62.7 points per game allowed).
“Through summer and early, I thought our offense was going to be unreal and it has been,” Freije said. “Any girl could score 20 if we could get them the ball down the court every time. That’s just so special to play with and I just feel so blessed to be on a team where every girl could score eight to 12 points. Those are the hardest teams to beat.
“We really thought with a bunch of upper classmen, a bunch of scorers, but our defense, we realized we might be a defensive team. That’s been so fun pouring our heart and soul into the defense and we have been playing well defensively.”
White has been the catalyst on the perimeter, while Kuderer and Squires have both become well-rounded two-way players. Braxton has only continued in her role as one of the league’s most physical rebounders and perhaps the best help defending big in the Big Sky.
Freije directs traffic and gives the Bobcats the ability to switch every screen against most every team in the conference while also hustling her way to 8.1 rebounds per game, fourth in the league. Jackson and Bad Bear have given MSU an energetic duo who can provide rebounding, deflections and the occasional transition bucket when called upon for 10 to 15 minutes a night each.
“Just by working hard and having confidence in each other and supporting each other, we all know we are going to make mistakes but by working hard to make up for it, we all have that mutual respect for each other and you can see that most defensively,” said White, the league’s Freshman of the Year who ranks second in the Big Sky with 61 steals during conference play.
And that defense has led to one of the most balanced offenses in women’s college basketball. In MSU’s recent 113-69 lambasting of Sacramento State, a season-high seven Bobcats (Squires, Smith, Kuderer, Freije, White, Martell and Braxton) scored in double figures. Perhaps more impressively, each scored between 12 and 19 points.
In the first game of 2020, Montana State scored 91 points thanks to five Bobcats finishing in double figures scoring, the first of seven games where at least five Bobcats have scored 10 or more points. MSU has had six double-figures scorers three of its last five games. MSU has had four players score 10 or more in a single game 14 times and has finished 13-1 in those games.
“We have a lot of consistency across this group and I think that’s our best strength,” Binford said. “I think we have a lot of balance because kids know what their role is and they do it well.”
MSU has surpassed 80 points in seven of its last 15 games, including a stretch in recent weeks that saw MSU score 102, 92 and 113 in consecutive outings.
“We play for each other,” said Smith, who surpassed 1,000 points in her career on Senior Day in Bozeman the final day of February, a 73-71 comeback win over NAU. “We play unselfishly. Anybody could be on. But last game, we had seven players in double digits so there’s no one playing for themselves, which is really cool.
“We have realized at this point if we want to win and we want to go far – and we have the dreams to do that – that we need to do it together as a team.”
And even when the ‘Cats aren’t lighting up the scoreboard, they have found ways to gut out victories, like rallying from a 14-point third quarter deficit in Missoula to down the rival Lady Griz 66-60 in overtime. Or like when MSU gutted out a 62-56 slugfest between two teams that traditionally employ some of the most wide-open offenses in the league.
“Everyone has bought into their role, busting their butts on defense and all over, whether it’s getting a deflection, making a post pass, knocking down a shot,” Frejie said. “To have a bench with our talent and to play at the pace like we do, it’s a huge advantage for us. And the chemistry we have built, that’s why we have kept winning.”
Last spring and early summer, Binford said she sat down with her staff to plan crafting the identity of Binford’s 15th version of the Bobcats and “basically decided we were going to be a defensive team.”
To do that, it would take a collective commitment to one another. Despite the meshing of three four-year players, two transfers, three freshmen and a former starter, Montana State’s veterans have led the way to ensure the team has gelled. The result: 19 conference victories and counting, meaning MSU has won more Big Sky games than any women’s basketball team in the history of the league.
“I think with a lot of the situations and transfers we have on this team, they come from programs that don’t have the same chemistry as we have here,” Braxton said. “Getting to be a part of this, not being able to play for a year and seeing how we operate and play for each other and understanding that is the culture we want to have, it’s changed their outlook. You could look at this team and not know who is the transfer and who has been here as long as they have. I think that’s a testament to how we treat each other and the love we have on this team.”
That love has culminated in special moments already this season. Montana State blitzed Montana in the rivalry rematch in late February, doubling up the Lady Griz 42-21 midway through the second quarter before cruising to a 92-78 victory on February 21. That win, MSU’s 15th conference victory, sewed up at least a share of the regular-season title for the Bobcats.
Following the victory, MSU’s ninth in the last 11 matchups against the once-dominant Lady Griz, the Bobcats climbed a ladder and took turns cutting down the nets at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse.
“I really don’t even have words for it,” said Braxton, who beamed with joy during her turn cutting the twine. “We got to cut the nets down our freshman year but this felt different this year. I’ve said it like a billion times at this point in the season but this is the most special team I’ve ever been on.”
Now Montana State must turn the page. The Bobcats will take on a to be determined opponent in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Tournament. MSU is 23-6 overall and is currently projected as a No. 14 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Bobcats are currently ranked No. 20 in this week’s College Insider Mid-Major Top 25.
But none of that will matter unless the top seed can win three games in the span of four days in Boise.
“We have been feeling like it’s March since early January because this team wants to do big things,” Binford said. “We are ready for any challenge.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.