The Montana State women's basketball team is headed to the NCAA tournament for the second time in five years, and joining them is sophomore Lexi Deden, a Missoula native and Sentinel High grad.
Deden, a 6-foot-1 forward, now gets her first taste of the tournament which comes early in her young career.
"I'm on cloud nine," Deden told MTN Sports just moments after MSU beat Northern Arizona for the Big Sky championship. "My teammates and I deserve this, our coaches deserve it. We've had a hard two years and we won it. We did it and we deserve it."
In the championship game against NAU, Deden's highlights weren't baskets, but a lot of diving for 50-50 balls and other hustle plays. She finished the championship game with six points, four rebounds, two steals and a block in 19 minutes of work off of the bench.
When you ask MSU head coach Tricia Binford about that, that's exactly what got Deden on the Bobcats' radar in the first place.
"We were done with our signing class when Lexi came to a summer camp," Deden said. "She basically did all of the things that you saw out there today with diving on hustle plays, loose balls, she took every single one of them, she ripped the ball out of hands. She was coming in transition, knocking down that turnaround and I'm like we have got to take this kid and she told one of my assistants at that camp when he asked her at the time, Why are you here at camp?' And she's like, 'Well I'm here to get a scholarship.' Well you know what, she worked for that scholarship and she proved it."
And it's not just Deden's coaches who notice that, but her teammates as well.
"Every game she comes in with the mentality that no one is going to stop her and she's going to get deflections, steals, and she does a lot of things that she doesn't get credit for that's not on the stat sheet," MSU junior guard Darian White said. "So I have a lot of respect for her. Our girls, our coaches, everybody has respect for her because she just works so hard and everyday in practice or in a game we know what we're going to get from her and she's very attack minded and it gets us going for sure so I love playing with Lexi."
"Our hashtag all season long has been 'proving it' and that's like Lexi's nickname. She just goes out and she's relentless," Binford added. "It's what she does as a competitor. She's never going to quit fighting. We talk about one of our defensive emphasis is disrupting primary actions and Lexi is always involved in those things and at the end of the day, everything starts with effort and getting a team in practice that's going to compete for each other, Lexi is that."
It's been two years of getting thrown into the fire for Deden, who is averaging 5.3 points and 3.7 rebounds per game this year as a role player off of the bench. And her hard work has helped lead the Bobcats back atop the Big Sky Conference, and back in the big dance. The No. 16 Bobcats will take on No. 1 Stanford on Friday.
"Just the culture here. Knowing that coach (Binford) wants to win and we're going to win and we just did so it's fun," Deden said. "It's a dream. It's literally a dream since I was 5 years old watching it on TV. And I'm living it right now."