PALO ALTO, Calif. — Friday’s game against Stanford will mark the third time in program history that the Montana State women have played in the NCAA tournament, following the 1993 and 2017 teams.
It very likely could have been the fourth trip, if not for the COVID-19 pandemic wiping away the 2020 postseason with the Cats on the verge of playing for a Big Sky title.
But each tournament team that came before, advanced in their own way. That included the 1993 Bobcats, who became the first MSU women’s team to win a conference title back.
They did it by beating rival Montana in both the regular season finale and tournament championship. The tournament was held in Bozeman, thanks to the flip of a coin. When MSU beat UM at home in the final game of the regular season, both the Cats and Lady Griz finished the season with identical 13-1 conference records after splitting the regular season series.
The host site for the tournament would be decided by coin flip. Former head coach Judy Spoelstra picks up the story:
“We win the game, the kids are celebrating and there was about six, seven thousand fans and everybody is mobbing the floor and then we immediately have to go in the back room and get ready for this elaborate coin toss,” she explained. “So it was determined that Montana State, because we were the home team, would get to call the first coin that goes up in the air to determine who gets to call the actual coin on who gets to host the the tournament the following week. So as they’re getting ready for the toss - I say ‘wait, wait,’ and I run back out and the team is cutting down the net and I ask them what they wanted to call.”
In unison they said: “Tails never fails”
“So that's what I went back in with. The first coin goes up. I can see it today in slow motion happening in this little locker room and it lands tails. So now here comes the real toss, right? I'm thinking, should I call heads? Should I called tails? So it goes up and I figure I had better stick with what the team told me, because I don't want to go out there and explain to them how I got it wrong. So I said tails and it landed tails again.
“And then it was a race, Tom Schulz who is the sports information director then and still now he and I had a foot race to get back out there. I'm running to the team, he's running to the microphone to make the announcement. We both get there at about the same time. And it was pandemonium.”
From there MSU would win the tournament title and advance to face Washington in the NCAA bracket, falling 80-51 in the first round. But the groundwork was in place.
“It's a terrific story to tell people, Montana had this storied record of not losing conference games and I think a couple of things are key with how we were able to get that success is the inroads in recruiting,” Spoelstra said. “Getting the best players in Montana to come to Montana State. So that was Cass Bauer, Steph Spencer and several others. We had a lot of really good players that were recruited by Montana as well. It was just a matter of time and it was gonna happen. So that was the belief system that was really initiated.”
It took 24 more years before the Cats made the tournament again. The 2016-17 Cats were led by Big Sky MVP Peyton Ferris of Twin Bridges and a talented squad who won a share of the regular season title and then won three games in Boise to clinch the tournament title.
The Cats earned the No. 14 seed and were matched up with No. 3 Washington again, a Huskies team that featured National Player of the Year Kelsey Plum.
“And I just remember kind of going in and walking in for shoot arounds and it was just kinda like, ‘wow, we're really here’,” Ferris said. “You work so hard and It's not an experience that everybody gets, so to get it is like a dream come true.”
Ferris shined on a national stage, scoring 33 points to lead all scorers in an eventual 91-63 loss.
Despite bowing out in the first round, Ferris said the experience was unforgettable and encourages the 2022 Bobcats to make the most of their time on the big stage.
“Go in and enjoy the experience, relax, go play,” Ferris said. “I think one of the biggest things I told myself was the game of basketball is the game of basketball.”
Montana State and Stanford tip off Friday night at 8 p.m. in Palo Alto.