Before the season, Minot State University women's basketball coach Sheila Green Gerding gave senior point guard Alisha "Speedy" Jones a solid endorsement: "She's a completely different player this year."
In the Beavers' Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference opener against the University of Mary, that much was clear.
A talented but erratic player last season, Jones displayed the calm good teams need in a floor general on Saturday. She knocked down 10 of 11 free throws - including 7 of 8 down the stretch - and scored a team-high 20 points in the Beavers' 79-72 win at the MSU Dome.
Minot State University senior Alisha 'Speedy' Jones dribbles against University of Mary senior Sudan Saunders on Saturday at the MSU Dome.
"I worked on a lot of stuff this summer," said Jones, a junior-college transfer in her second year with MSU. "I just came in with a different mentality this year - that I need to do everything I can to try to lead this team."
Early in Saturday's game, she led the Beavers (5-0 overall, 1-0 NSIC) to a dominant start. Jones tallied 11 points in the first 8 minutes, 14 seconds as MSU took leads of 15-0 and 26-5.
But Mary (2-2, 0-1) didn't go quietly.
After trailing 43-26 at halftime, the Marauders opened the second stanza with a 16-3 run that included three 3-pointers. From there, the game was competitive, though MSU never surrendered its once-large advantage.
Mary cut the deficit to 73-72 with 2:11 remaining, but following a pair of defensive stops, Jones found junior Katie Hardy for a layup.
After Mary missed a bunny, MSU turned it over, giving the Marauders a chance to tie with about 30 seconds remaining.
But MSU junior Christina Boag deflected Brittney Dietz's 3-point attempt and the ball went out of bounds off a Mary player. Jones knocked down a pair of free throws and MSU held on from there.
"I thought she had a great game overall," Green Gerding said of Jones. "She was hitting shots early and getting to the free-throw line late. She was distributing the ball and taking care of it for the most part."
Dietz spurred the Marauders' comeback, pouring in 15 of her game-high 24 points after the intermission. She knocked down 5 of 6 from 3-point range.
"Offensively, she had her best game of the year and wanted the ball down the stretch and that's nice to see from her," Mary coach Rick Neumann said. "She's becoming a go-to player and has been doing a lot of good things for us all year."
The NSIC's leading scorer, MSU senior Carly Boag, went 7-for-10 from the field to finish with 19 points. Typically a player who scores in the post, Boag stepped out and knocked down four jump shots, including a 3-pointer.
Green Gerding said Boag used her agility to gain an advantage on Mary post Linda Murray, who tallied 16 points and a game-high 11 boards.
"Murray wanted to hang out in the paint and Carly popped out and hit some shots on her because she's capable of doing that," Green Gerding said. "We'll do things with her like that, because we're not gonna just sit her in the paint; she's too mobile. She can hit outside shots, she's good off the bounce, she's just hard to guard. ... We gotta get her touches somehow."
Both teams shot well from beyond the arc - Mary was 10 of 18 and MSU went 9 of 18 - but the Beavers had the advantage at the foul line. MSU hit 22 of 25 freebies, compared to 16 of 26 for Mary.
Even though his team shot 50 percent in the second half, Neumann said his team couldn't quite overcome MSU's hot start.
"I'm proud of the way our girls competed, but credit goes to coach Gerding and her girls," he said. "They were more ready to go at the start of the game than we were. At any level, in any league, you can't get down by two touchdowns and expect to come back."
MSU hosts Northern State at 6 p.m. Friday.
Daniel Allar covers Minot State University athletics. Follow him on Twitter @DAllar_MDN.