Story by Griz Information
GREELEY, CO – For as well as Montana played late, Northern Colorado was even better early, and that was the difference as the Bears took over sole possession of first place in the Big Sky Conference with a 68-50 victory over the Lady Griz on Saturday afternoon at Bank of Colorado Arena in Greeley.

Northern Colorado (12-3, 4-0 BSC) jumped out to a 15-1 lead and never gave Montana (7-8, 3-1 BSC) a chance to get back into it, shooting 45.5 percent and outrebounding the visitors by eight.

“They got off to a great start. We did not,” said UM coach Shannon Schweyen, whose team had four turnovers and three missed shots before McKenzie Johnston finally scored nearly six minutes into the game.

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Northern Colorado went 8 for 13 in the first quarter and led 22-8 at the first break. The lead was 37-22 at the half and 59-36 through three quarters before a late surge by Montana three times cut its deficit to 14 in the fourth.

But that was mostly ornamental. The outcome had been decided well before by the team that looked more ready from the opening tip to take over the top spot in the league standings. And the Bears stand alone, the only Big Sky team without a loss through two weeks of league games.

“I didn’t feel like we played hard today. We have kids who have to start competing a little bit more when they are out there,” said Schweyen.

Northern Colorado runs a well-spaced, efficient offense, with most of the early action taking place well above the free throw line. Montana knew what was coming and still could do little to slow it down in the game’s opening minutes.

Starting high and then moving toward the basket, Northern Colorado’s lone post player, Courtney Smith, scored eight points in less than four minutes, and the Bears hit six of their first eight shots to go up 15-1.

“It was disappointing that we gave up things that we talked about,” said Schweyen. “We didn’t want to do things a certain way, and unfortunately they exploited it. They got too many easy ones on us.”

Northern Colorado went 7 for 18 from 3-point range, which isn’t unusual, but the Bears balanced that with 26 points in the paint, six more than Montana, whose game plan was to get isolations near the basket against a team that plays with a small lineup.

“They shot it well from three. It was the other things we didn’t do a very good job on,” said Schweyen. “Our weak side was a little bit asleep tonight.

“They played a good ball game. We just didn’t match their aggressiveness. They were definitely the aggressor to start the game.”

On the other end, Montana tried to post up every player it could. And those matchups were available, but only for brief windows of time. Northern Colorado was too quick to double, and that led to 10 first-half turnovers, many on entry passes that either didn’t reach their target or weren’t handled.

“Credit to them. A lot of those were lobs over the top, when they came and stripped them out of our hands. They are quick and moving when the ball is in the air, and they have quick hands,” said Schweyen.

“We talked about passing and catching and being strong with the ball, and we didn’t do that in the first half. It was a disappointing start.”

Northern Colorado scored the first five points of the third quarter to build its first 20-point lead, 42-22, and used a 3-pointer in the final minute of the period to take a 59-36 advantage into the fourth.

If there was a positive to be taken from the game, it was Montana’s play for most of the fourth quarter.

Sparked by Johnston, who had six points, three steals and an assist over the game’s final 10 minutes, the Lady Griz opened the fourth quarter by scoring 11 of the first 13 points to cut UNC’s lead to 61-47.

But it was never going to be enough, not against a team that had four starters score 11 or more points.

“Kenzie finally got it cooking a little bit in the second half. Unfortunately it was all too little, too late,” said Schweyen. “You’re not going to make up a lot of ground on them. They make it tough.”

Johnston finished with 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting, but Montana’s other four starters combined for just 12 points, with Madi Schoening being held scoreless for the first time this season on just two shot attempts.

Once again, Montana got a nice contribution from its bench, which it needed in this game. Emma Stockholm had five points, Nora Klick grabbed five rebounds, and Sophia Stiles was her usual self, a whirling dervish of baseline-to-baseline energy and hustle.

Yes, she had five turnovers, but Montana was already down double digits before she ever stepped foot on the floor. And any potential comeback requires some risk.

She would finish with a season-high 11 points on 4-of-6 shooting and add five rebounds, four assists and two steals. And look like one of the few players who truly wanted to take the Bears on.

“She came to play, without a doubt,” said Schweyen. “She was a huge spark for us on both ends. I loved her aggressiveness. She took it to the hole and both scored and made some nice feeds. She had a great game.”

Savannah Smith and Savannah Scott combined for 53 points in Northern Colorado’s 82-69 home win over Montana State on Thursday. Montana held them to 24 on 6-of-22 shooting.

Instead it was the Savannahs’ supporting cast that did the damage. Kianna Williams went 3 for 4 from the arc and scored 13 points. Courtney Smith finished with 12, and Bridget Hintz came off the bench to score a season-high eight points.

Perhaps the game’s most surprising development was the rebounding battle. Montana out-boarded North Dakota on Thursday 42-33, turning the tables on one of the Big Sky’s top rebounding teams.

Facing a smaller squad on Saturday, Montana got out-rebounded 36-28, with Northern Colorado grabbing 11 offensive rebounds, courtesy of spacing, anticipation and hustle.

“That was disappointing, because we take pride in our rebounding. There were a lot of 50-50 balls they beat us to,” said Schweyen. “This is a team we thought we could hurt on the boards.”

But Montana still returns home with a split from a difficult road trip and still sits alone in second place in the Big Sky standings. It was a loss, and a disappointing one at that, but the Lady Griz are still 3-1 in league, which is better than almost anyone would have predicted two weeks ago.

“(Northern Colorado) is a good basketball team. Not a lot of people are going to come in here and beat these guys at home,” said Schweyen. “We’ll take something positive away from this and learn from it and hopefully be better next time around.”

In other league games Saturday afternoon, Weber State won 77-64 at Southern Utah, Idaho won 101-90 at Portland State behind 39 points from Mikayla Ferenz, Eastern Washington won 83-72 at Sacramento State, and North Dakota won at home over Montana State 79-70.

Idaho State played an evening game at Northern Arizona.

Montana will host Sacramento State (3-11, 1-2 BSC) on Thursday at 7 p.m., Portland State (8-6, 2-1 BSC) at 2 p.m. on Saturday.

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