Business Trip: No. 11 Carroll preparing for Round of 16 matchup with No. 6 Morningside | Carroll College

HELENA  The Carroll’s women’s basketball team is on a business trip, one the Saints hope doesn’t end for another week.

On Monday night, the team arrived in Sioux City, Iowa, for the NAIA National Championship Tournament Final Site games. Round of 16 play begins on Thursday with four games. Carroll plays Morningside (Iowa) at 2 p.m. MT for a spot in the quarterfinals.

“We’re kinda getting used to playing on the road in a hostile environment…I definitely think the players, mentally, are in a great place to compete against Morningside,” Saints head coach Rachelle Sayers said. “They score a ton of points and shoot the ball as well as any team we’ve played all year. They create a lot of chaos on the defensive end. They press and they zone and they switch it up a lot, they’re very active.”

Carroll did not return to Helena following its opening round wins over Lindsey Wilson and Loyola in New Orleans. Instead, the team enjoyed a day off in Louisiana on Sunday before splitting up and taking separate flights to Atlanta and then on to Omaha, Nebraska, where the team rejoined and practiced at NCAA Division I Creighton University before driving to Sioux City.

In between travel and game preparation, the Saints have found time to fit in breaks from the grind of a business trip. The team visited downtown New Orleans on Sunday and spent the day exploring Bourbon Street and some other historic sites in the city.

On Monday, the team had the opportunity to watch an NCAA Tournament-bound Creighton women’s basketball team practice. Even during the NAIA opening round, the Saints got to play on Tulane’s home floor, an NCAA Division I facility.

“When we walked into Tulane for the first time, everyone was super excited to be somewhere completely new in a really nice facility,” Carroll senior Christine Denny said. “Aside from being able to practice at some Division I schools, we’ve been able to do some sight-seeing and really bond as a team, which has been a lot of fun off the court, as well as on the court.”

For Denny and three of her teammates, this is the last road trip of their collegiate careers. That makes the end goal pretty obvious, but off the court, these experiences can help break up the grind of travel and games, as well as provide lifelong memories.

“I think any time you can schedule in some of those experiences that make it special – if it’s all about the grind every single day, I don’t know that you’ll ever get as much out of these players as you will if you also make it about the entire experience…

“We’re gonna have fun and we’re gonna have a great experience and enjoy our time wherever we’re at, but at the end of the day, the reason that we’re here is to come out and compete as hard as we can and represent Carroll College and the entire state of Montana as well as we can,” Sayers said.

The Saints, who won two national tournament games in the same season for the first time under Sayers to reach Sioux City, are matched up with Morningside, a team that plays its home games just four or so miles away from the Tyson Events Center. Morningside is the No. 2 seed in the Naismith Quadrant and beat Iowa Wesleyan and St. Francis to reach the Round of 16.

Morningside has won four national championships in its program history (2004, 2005, 2009, 2015) and qualified for its 20th-straight national tournament earlier this month.

The Mustangs feature one of the NAIA’s best scoring offenses at over 80 points per game and are top-10 in team field goal and 3-point field goal percentage. They share the basketball among the best in the country and average just 12 turnovers per game.

Senior Sierra Mitchell is tied for fifth in the NAIA with 96 made 3-pointers, while Taylor Rodenburgh is 10th in the nation shooting the 3-ball at a 45 percent clip. Mitchell (17.8) and Rodenburgh (12.7) each average double figures, as do Sophia Peppers (15.1) and Chloe Lofstrom (12.3).

“We’ve gotta chase them off the 3-point line,” Sayers said. “They’re averaging almost 11 made threes per game. They shoot it at a very high percentage and they all shoot it. We’re gonna have to make them uncomfortable. We’re gonna have to do everything we can to not give them any open looks…

“When you do that, then you have the tendency to get spread all over the floor and you open yourself up to getting beat off the dribble. They’re going to put a lot of pressure on us defensively to be able to stay down in a stance, and not only guard shooters, but keep the ball in front of us.”

Expect Mitchell (4-time all-conference player), Peppers (three-time all-conference player), Lofstrom, McKenna Sims and Alexis Spier to start for Morningside. Rodenburgh has made 13 starts this season, but has come off the bench of late, and is averaging about 20 minutes per game. Lauren Hedlund and Aspen Jansa will also come off the bench.

Carroll shot better than 48 percent from the field and north of 47 percent from 3-point distance in its opening round victories. The Saints have more than enough firepower to keep pace with a team like Morningside, but they would rather slow the Mustangs down and hold them in the 60s or 70s.

Neither one of Carroll’s opening round opponents broke 60 points, and for the season, the Saints are allowing just 54.4 points per game, a top-10 mark in the NAIA.

Sienna Swannack vs. Montana Western

Carroll’s Sienna Swannack battles for a loose ball with a Montana Western player during the Saints’ 74-57 win over the Bulldogs on Feb. 5.

Carroll felt like it could zone Loyola and did so successfully. That probably isn’t going to work against a good 3-point shooting team like Morningside, however.

“I don’t think we’ll be able to run a ton of zone against Morningside just because every position on their roster shoots the three,” Sayers said. “I think they’ll extend us too much and we’ll end up playing a lot of man principles within our zone. We’re gonna have to really dig deep and get out there and defend like crazy.”

Offensively, the Saints will likely face plenty of pressing back to a zone defense. Morningside forced a combined 39 turnovers in its opening round games and features four starters who have 40 or more steals on the season.

Carroll is the 12th-least turnover prone team in the NAIA, a product of the Saints’ ball handler-centric lineups.

“The biggest key for us is being able to take care of the ball against their presses,” Sayers said. “When we come down and face their changing zones, we have to play with a lot of tempo, with a lot of togetherness. I think just be really solid with the basketball. I think sometimes we play a little fast and we’re just worried about moving the ball and not necessarily about creating things for others. We just have to play with a really good flow offensively.”

Carroll’s roster has plenty of experience playing in games like this. The Saints have qualified for the national tournament each of the last five years with this senior class. Beyond that, Carroll played one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the nation this season, playing last year’s national champion and runner-up away from home, not to mention two competitive games against NCAA Division I competition.

Morningside lost in the semifinals last season but rebounded to win the Great Plains Athletic Conference regular-season title and finish runner-up in the conference tournament.

This journey to Sioux City (by way of New Orleans) has already been a memorable one for Carroll. Players and coaches got to cut down nets after winning the opening round pod tournament, something that Denny said was the highlight of the trip for her, thus far.

Of course, cutting down nets as national champions would supplant that experience.

“That’s the goal,” Denny said.

Tip off from Sioux City is scheduled for 2 p.m. MT on Thursday.

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