STORY BY MONTANA SPORTS INFORMATION
LARAMIE, WY – It wasn’t a win, but it was a result — against an experienced team on the road at a tough venue — that shows how far ahead of last year the Montana women’s basketball team is.
With both sides using lineups similar to last season, when Wyoming traveled to Missoula and handed the Lady Griz a 67-42 beatdown, Montana fell to the Cowgirls at Laramie on Monday night 67-62.
“I’m extremely proud of the way we competed tonight. We reminded the players that that’s the same team we played last year and lost by 25 at home. So it’s hard not to be extremely happy about that,” said coach Shannon Schweyen.
Montana trailed 26-25 at the half and 44-41 after three quarters. Down 50-49 in the fourth, Montana had three possessions when it could have taken the lead but came up empty.
Wyoming (2-0) answered with a 9-0 run that pushed its lead to 10, and still the Lady Griz (0-1) kept coming.
Montana cut its deficit to three three times in the final minute, but Wyoming hit a pair of free throws at the other end each time to hold on for its sixth straight victory in the series.
“This is a good environment. They have a nice crowd. And the girls never said die,” said Schweyen. “They showed a lot of heart, and that’s encouraging.
“I loved the look in their eyes. They felt like they could win this ballgame.”
Sierra Anderson and Madi Schoening both scored 14 points for Montana, which shot 39.7 percent, a percentage reached just once last year on the road.
McKenzie Johnston scored 11 points before fouling out in the final minute, and Jace Henderson, who looked like a different player — posting up strong, demanding the ball, then finishing — added 10 points and eight rebounds off the bench.
“Jace was huge for us tonight. She was fearless down there. She got eight boards, she made some post shots, she was aggressive. She looked like she wanted the ball,” said Schweyen.
The game marked the collegiate debut of Sophia Stiles, who isn’t going to redshirt after all (but Gabi Harrington is), and the freshman from Malta did not disappoint.
Not only did she not disappoint or look overwhelmed or in over her head, she looked like a contributor, someone the Lady Griz can rely on this season if her first 21 minutes were any indication.
She scored six points on 3-of-5 shooting and grabbed three rebounds. And that doesn’t count her savvy play on the defensive end, like the time she stepped in front of an unsuspecting Wyoming ball-handler and forced a traveling violation at a critical time in the fourth quarter. That’s not learned. It’s instinct.
“Sophie was a huge lift for us. She attacked the basket and got some nice dribble jumpers. She’s so quick that we encourage her to go make plays,” said Schweyen. “She has great instincts. As she continues to play, she’s just going to get more and more confident.”
Johnston scored seven of Montana’s first nine points to get the Lady Griz off to a good start, but they went without a point the final 4:50 of the first quarter and trailed 12-9 at the first break.
The lead reached eight, 21-13, midway through the second quarter, and it felt like the slow, steady, unstoppable building of a big lead might be underway.
But it wasn’t. Anderson and Henderson scored in the paint to cut the lead to four, and Madi Schoening answered one of Wyoming’s two banked-in 3-pointers in the first half with one of her own that didn’t require any luck.
Hailey Nicholson hit a pair of free throws, Anderson added one of her own, and Emma Stockholm scored inside in the final minute to put Montana ahead 25-24.
Wyoming scored on a runner just before the halftime buzzer to make it 26-25.
“We got down eight in the first half, but we kept battling and battling,” said Schweyen, whose team hasn’t won away from Missoula since the 2016 Big Sky tournament in Reno.
“We haven’t won a road game in a long time. It’s been a while since we’ve been in one against a good, quality program like Wyoming.”
Montana took the lead three different times early in the third quarter, but 34-33 would be its final advantage, coming on a Mekayla Isaak free throw with 5:55 left.
Henderson brought Montana within one, 50-49, less than three minutes into the fourth quarter. Three times the Lady Griz had the ball while down one. Three times they missed.
Bailee Cotton scored seven of Wyoming’s points on its 9-0 run that made it 61-51, and that felt like it would be the lead that would finally put away Montana. It was, barely.
Anderson hit a three to make it 61-54, and Schoening hit four free throws to cut the lead to 61-58 with 33 second remaining.
Wyoming didn’t make a basket in the final 3:41, but it didn’t need to. The Cowgirls went 10 for 12 from the line in the final three minutes to hold on for the win.
“We got some good looks and knocked some of them down and made a game of it,” said Schweyen. “The girls just flat-out competed. We had foul trouble all night and kids playing out of position, but they kept battling.”
Montana did a better job defensively on Wyoming than it did last season, but for the second straight year the Lady Griz struggled from the 3-point line, and this time around it was costly.
Last year it was 1 for 14 from the arc. On Monday it was 3 for 19. It made the sight of Taylor Goligoski sitting on the bench in warmups even harder to witness, because this was a game that could have been won.
“They are hard to guard, with all the cutting and screening they do. It’s a tough action to be guarding. I thought the girls did a really nice job. It gave us a chance to be in the ballgame,” said Schweyen.
“It would have been nice to knock a few of our open looks down. With Taylor out right now, she’s definitely one of our prolific scorers and a player who can go create shots. Still, there were a lot of bright things tonight.”
Montana turned the ball over just eight times.
It will be a quick turnaround for the Lady Griz, who host unbeaten Kentucky (2-0) on Thursday night at 7 p.m. at Dahlberg Arena.