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Breen Overcomes Injury For Top Scholar-Athlete Honor
After missing all of 2016-17 with a knee injury, Alisha Breen succeeded in breaking numerous GNAC single-season and career records. Photo by Skip Hickey.
After missing all of 2016-17 with a knee injury, Alisha Breen succeeded in breaking numerous GNAC single-season and career records. Photo by Skip Hickey.
Alisha Breen
Alisha Breen

Wednesday, June 13, 2018
by Blake Timm, GNAC Assistant Commissioner

NOTE: Alisha Breen shares this year's GNAC Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year Award with Alaska Anchorage's Caroline Kurgat. Kurgat will be featured on GNACSports.com on Thursday (June 14).

PORTLAND, Ore. – They say that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Alisha Breen believes it.

After suffering an ACL injury in November 2016 that could have signaled the end of her collegiate basketball career, Breen used it as incentive to get better and get stronger. She was rewarded with a senior season beyond her wildest dreams.

Breen’s efforts to advance Montana State Billings to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight, combined with her successes in the classroom, have been recognized by conference athletic directors with her selection as the Great Northwest Athletic Conference’s 2017-18 Co-Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year. Breen shares the honor with Alaska Anchorage distance-running standout Caroline Kurgat.

“Finishing my career out by sharing the GNAC Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year is a complete honor,” Breen said. “To be recognized by the conference for the work I put in not only on the court, but in the classroom, is extremely special.”

Breen, a three-time GNAC All-Academic Team selection and a First Team CoSIDA Academic All-American this season, graduated from Montana State Billings in May after carrying a 3.67 grade point average while majoring in health and human performance.

But this dream season came close to being just that – a dream. Days after being selected as the GNAC Preseason Player of the Year in October 2016, Breen suffered an ACL tear that ended the season before it began. That also took the Yellowjackets from a predicted fourth-place finish in the GNAC Preseason Coaches Poll to a ninth-place finish at 5-15.

Breen spent the next year doing rehabilitation to her injury and doing everything she could to strengthen herself. The time off also allowed Breen to continue to concentrate on academics while taking a redshirt season.

When she returned to the court in October 2017, Breen wasn’t sure what to expect. She felt stronger, but how would her body respond in practice and game situations? “I wasn’t sure how well I would be able to come back, and I was always nervous that I wouldn’t be able to compete at the level I was before,” Breen said.

Her coach wasn’t as worried. “Alisha loves to compete,” said MSUB head coach Kevin Woodin, “and although it was hard for her to miss a year due to injury, she dedicated herself to putting in the work needed to come back and play at an even higher level.”

Expectations were certainly high. Breen was selected by GNAC coaches as the Preseason Player of the Year for the second-straight year, despite the fact she had never set foot on the court the year before.

She didn’t disappoint. In 37 games, Breen never scored less than 11 points and finished the season averaging 21.4 points per game, leading the conference and ranking 11th in Division II. She finished with 18 double-doubles, ranking her fourth among Division II players, and led the nation with 259 free throw attempts, 226 makes and 1,337 minutes played.

Breen finished the 2017-18 campaign setting the GNAC single-season records for points scored (791), minutes played, free throws made and attempted and field goals attempted (587). The performances led Breen to finish her career as the GNAC’s all-time leader in points scored (2,001), free throws made (569), free throws attempted (692) and minutes played (4,174). Breen was named the GNAC Women’s Basketball Player of the Year and the D2CCA West Region Player of the Year. She was also honored as a Division II First Team All-American by both the D2CCA and the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association of America (WBCA).

While the individual accolades certainly proved the point that Breen was better after her injury than she was before, the true satisfaction came from the Yellowjackets’ incredible postseason run.

After finishing fourth in the GNAC regular-season standings, the Yellowjackets made an impressive three-game run through the GNAC Championships in Anchorage. After surviving through a close 75-73 win over Central Washington, MSUB used a 27-point performance by Breen and big second and third-quarter team scoring performances to knock off regular-season co-champion Northwest Nazarene, 76-69. The Yellowjackets finished off the championship run with a convincing 71-61 over Seattle Pacific in the final.

Breen was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player after she scored 77 points in the three games, including a double-double of 24 points and 10 rebounds in the final.

Montana State Billings prevailed in a pair of close contests in the first two rounds of the NCAA West Regional to face a rematch with Alaska Anchorage. The team everyone expected to be in the GNAC Championships final before an upset loss to Seattle Pacific, the Seawolves had beat the Yellowjackets by double-digits in both regular-season meetings.

Montana State Billings never led by more than one-point, but took that lead for good when they needed it most. Trailing 70-68 with 1:38 left, Breen and teammate Rylee Kane combined to sink three free throws down the stretch and forced a pair of turnovers to give MSUB the 71-70 victory, the West Region championship and a trip to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight.

Ask Breen about it and she will tell you it was all meant to be. “Being able to finish out my career at MSUB with the GNAC championship and West Region tournament titles is still pretty remarkable to say,” she said. “On top of it, being recognized as one of the top-eight teams in the nation and makes me look back and saw that my knee injury really did happen for a reason.”

The long road trips from Billings, the easternmost outpost in the GNAC, and the championship runs challenged Breen’s ability to balance athletics and academics, but the same work ethic that made Breen one of the best on the court made her an all-star in the classroom. But it was a balancing act.

“Our travel schedule can be very challenging and one of the things I learned early on was that communication would be key,” Breen said. “I had wonderful professors that would work with me on making up assignments and tests when we were on the road. Coach Woodin holds each of his players to a high standard, so it has always been important to me to perform as well as I can in the classroom.”

“Alisha deserves this honor,” Woodin said. “She has excelled both on and off the court at MSUB. Her leadership, determination and character have impacted our program for the past five years. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to coach Alisha and her teammates this past season. It was a remarkable year for our program and I am very excited about the future.”

Breen’s knee injury not only shaped her future on the basketball court, but has impacted her life trajectory. She is applying to physical therapy futures to gain her advanced degree and help those the way her physical therapists helped her achieve her dream season.

“I’ve spent enough time completing rehab that I hope that one day I can help athletes like my therapists and trainers helped me,” Breen said. “I’m also sure somewhere down the line I will make my way back to basketball as a coach. The game has been part of my life for so long. It will be hard to say goodbye.”

Also nominated for the 2017-18 GNAC Female Scholar-Athlete of the Year Award was Alexa Shindruk of Central Washington (cross country/track and field), Ana Delgadillo of Concordia (soccer), Ellie Logan of Northwest Nazarene (track and field), Lindsay Miller of Saint Martin’s (softball), Jordan McPhee of Seattle Pacific (basketball), Sophie Dodd of Simon Fraser (cross country/track and field), Sara Madden of Western Oregon (track and field) and Jasmine McMullin of Western Washington (track and field).

GNAC FEMALE SCHOLAR-ATHLETES OF THE YEAR
2017-18: Alisha Breen, Montana State Billings (Basketball); Caroline Kurgat, Alaska Anchorage (Cross Country/Track and Field)

2016-17:
Bethany Drake, Western Washington (Track and Field)
2015-16:
Shayla Page, Seattle Pacific (Soccer)
2014-15: Suzanna Ohlsen, Seattle Pacific (Basketball)
2013-14: Lacey McGladrey, Saint Martin’s (Softball)
2012-13: Helen Crofts, Simon Fraser (Track and Field)
2011-12: Kelsey Jenkins, Seattle Pacific (Soccer)
2010-11: Dara Zack, Saint Martin’s (Basketball)
2009-10: Jessica Pixler, Seattle Pacific (Cross Country/Track and Field)
2008-09: Ashley Puga, Northwest Nazarene (Cross Country/Track and Field)
2007-08: Amanda Peters, Northwest Nazarene (Soccer/Track and Field)
2006-07: Ana Gutierrez, Seattle (Soccer)
2005-06: Lindy Mullen, Central Washington (Track and Field)
2004-05: Martina Kartikova, Saint Martin’s (Basketball)
2003-04: Liz Bishop, Western Washington (Volleyball)
2002-03: Nichole Sauvageau, Seattle (Soccer)
2001-02: Nichole Sauvageau, Seattle (Soccer)

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