MSU vs. Carroll WBB (copy)

Montana State forward Kola Bad Bear tries to get a shot around Carroll College forward Jamie Pickens on Nov. 9.

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Kola Bad Bear is playing with a little more freedom than at any point in the last three years.

The junior played her first two seasons at Montana State with a brace on her right knee, a constant reminder of a gruesome knee injury during her senior volleyball season in high school at Billings Senior.

She has shed the bulky brace this season, though, and is seeing the effects in her play already.

“I feel like I can move a lot better all the way around, defensively and offensively,” Bad Bear said. “I feel more natural rather than robotic in a way because it restricts a lot of movement.”

The Bobcats (2-5) have two Big Sky games this week, with home contests at 7 p.m. Thursday against Northern Colorado and 7 p.m. Saturday against Sacramento State.

Bad Bear hopes to carry over her brilliant play from last weekend into the first pair of conference games. She put up a career-high 18 points in a loss to North Texas on Friday and secured a career-best 10 rebounds the next day against Cal Poly.

“After having those games, I felt like it was kind of a good breakout game for me,” she said. “They built my confidence a little bit.”

Bad Bear added she started to feel the confidence her coaches and teammates have in her as well.

“It just feels really good to have that feeling of trust,” she said.

The Bobcats have a fair amount of depth in the post, so head coach Tricia Binford can get creative with her rotations. She’s still hoping for more uniform play from that position group, however.

That will be key to Bad Bear’s success going forward.

“Kola had the weekend I think everybody knows she’s capable of,” Binford said. “Now it’s just more repeating it and bringing that to the table consistently because we need that from her. She really stepped up on both ends of the floor.”

Bad Bear initially injured her right knee during a game at Belgrade when she followed a wayward set a little too far out of bounds. She hit the pole supporting the volleyball net and twisted her knee as she landed, tearing several ligaments.

“It went numb right away,” she said.

She missed her senior season of basketball also and had to wait until October of her freshman year at MSU to be cleared for full contact. She wore the brace for two years at the recommendations of athletic trainer Alex Jardine and strength coach Ben Huver. Both have since left for similar positions at Nebraska.

Over this summer, Bad Bear tested her vertical leap off of each leg and actually jumped higher on her right leg than her left. She was convinced she had seen the progress she needed to see.

“So I just kind of took myself out of the brace,” she said with a laugh.

Through seven games this season, Bad Bear is averaging career highs in points (6.1) and rebounds (3.7) per game, and she’s shooting 44.2% from the field, also an improvement on her past two years.

She’s liking this version of herself.

“It’s a lot better, and I feel a lot more light,” Bad Bear said. “I’m happy. I see a huge difference.”

Weekend preparation

The Bobcats welcome to town this week two teams with new head coaches: Kristen Mattio at Northern Colorado and Mark Campbell at Sac State.

Binford has some familiarity with Mattio, a former Montana State assistant from 2003-05 under then-head coaches Robin Potera and Greg Kudrna. Binford said the Bears (2-3) are “completely different in terms of style of play and what they’re running” under Mattio than they were under Jenny Huth the previous three seasons.

“There’s a ton of zone, press on makes, there’s a lot of new personnel,” Binford said. “Our job is to make sure we’re efficient on both ends of the floor and we put a full game together.”

Last season’s Big Sky MVP, UNC’s Alisha Davis, transferred to Colorado State-Pueblo after the coaching change.

Mattio joined Northern Colorado from West Texas A&M, where she went 154-35 over six seasons and made the NCAA Division II tournament five times. Former Montana State guard Sydney Stensgard transferred to West Texas A&M this summer and then followed Mattio to UNC. She has scored nine points this season for the Bears.

Mattio’s staff also includes Geoff Golden, who spent last season on Binford’s coaching staff.

The Hornets (3-4), meanwhile, have been bolstered by two new additions: sophomore center Isnelle Natabou, a 6-foot-5 transfer from Western Iowa, and graduate transfer guard Lianna Tillman, who’s currently leading the Big Sky at 19.7 points per game.

For years, the Hornets played a game predicated on taking and making as many 3-pointers as possible. With their new transfers and a new coach, Binford sees a different style of team to prepare for.

“They have two new pieces that are in a majority of their actions,” she said. “Their point guard is taking the majority of their shots, and their center has a great presence for them. They’re definitely not playing at the same pace that the previous Sac State was.”

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Parker Cotton can be reached at pcotton@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2670. Follow him on Twitter @ByParkerCotton.

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