STORY BY MONTANA SPORTS INFORMATION
MISSOULA – The Eagles were who Lady Griz coach Shannon Schweyen thought they would be — ball-stealing thieves who prey on timid ball-handlers — and Montana still wasn’t totally prepared for it, at least early, and it proved costly.
Eastern Washington, one of the nation’s leaders in steals, forced 11 Montana turnovers in the game’s opening 12 minutes to set the tone, and the Eagles were clutch from the 3-point line in the second half as they held on for a 75-72 victory over the Lady Griz at Dahlberg Arena in Missoula on Thursday night.
Eastern Washington opened the game hitting eight of its first 10 shots to build an 18-5 lead and led the final 38 minutes despite Montana making it a one or two possession game for much of the fourth quarter.
“I thought the girls played really hard. It wasn’t for a lack of playing hard. But it was all about the beginning of the game. They set the tempo with the way they got after us and took it away from us,” said Schweyen.
The first half could only be described as funky. Eastern Washington bullied the ball away from Montana early and often, not out of traps but simply by poking, prodding and taking at it from whichever Lady Griz happened to have the ball.
“That was definitely the story of the game. They are 17th in the country in steals, so we talked about being strong with the ball. It was a huge point of emphasis, and we were not,” said Schweyen. “They just took it out of our hands.
“I thought we panic-passed a lot of those, and unfortunately they turned into easy buckets for them. We gave them way too many easy ones off turnovers.”
But the Eagles only led 34-30 at the half because they simply could not stop fouling, either on defense or by charging over set Montana defenders on the other end.
Eastern Washington was whistled for 16 first-half fouls, putting Montana at the line 20 times. The Lady Griz committed just two first-half fouls. The Eagles didn’t step foot to the foul line in the opening 20 minutes.
Somehow the teams got to the break in a four-point game, and the Lady Griz could have been leading had they not missed six free throws. Spoiler alert: It gets worse.
“I felt lucky to be down only what we were at the half,” said Schweyen.
Montana turned the ball over just five times in the second half and had every opportunity to grab the lead, but the Eagles made every big play they needed to make, particularly from the arc.
Eastern Washington went 7 for 10 from the 3-point line in the second half, just good enough to hold off every Montana challenge to its lead as the Eagles won at Dahlberg Arena for the second consecutive season and improved to 6-42 against the Lady Griz in Missoula.
Delaney Hodgins scored 17 of her game-high 24 points in the second half and Symone Starks and Violet Kapri Morrow combined to finish with five 3-pointers and 29 points.
“They have a lot of weapons. Credit to them for stepping up and making them. They shot it well tonight, and that killed us. You can’t let a team get cooking like that,” said Schweyen.
Montana pulled within one, 45-44, on a McKenzie Johnston basket midway through the third quarter, but Hodgins answered with a pair of free throws and Uriah Howard with a 3-pointer. And repeat.
The Lady Griz twice cut it to one in the fourth quarter, and Madi Schoening, who led Montana with 16 points, twice had open 3-pointers in the final five minutes that would have given her team its first lead since the opening minute of the game, but both missed.
Howard followed the first miss with a basket, Hodgins did the same after the second misfire, making it 70-66 with 1:53 to go. Hodgins would add four free throws to up the lead to 74-66.
Montana made it a tight final score with four points in the final 10 seconds, but the outcome had already been decided.
“The second half we did a much better job taking care of the ball. We got a lot of good looks. They just didn’t go,” said Schweyen, whose team lost despite shooting 48.1 percent.
“The second half we didn’t defend the three well. We lost people too often. It was a lack of communication. And still we battled to make it close at the end. If we make our free throws in this game, it’s a different ball game.”
Since she brought it up, we probably have to go there. Montana went 5 for 11 from the line in the second half and finished 19 for 31 (.613) for the game, 12 costly points left sitting there, unclaimed.
There were any number of ways the Lady Griz could have pulled it out, from taking better care of the ball in the first half to defending the 3-point line better in the second, but the free throw line stands out, easy points wasted in what turned out to be a three-point game.
Montana’s post players missed seven between them.
“It’s a shame, because we passed the ball well into the post. They get after you on defense, and you’ve got to make them pay for that,” said Schweyen.
“The price they should pay is when we get fouls called inside, hopefully we step up and knock them down. That definitely would have made a difference tonight.”
Instead Montana will take a three-game losing streak, its longest since November, into Saturday’s home game against streaking Idaho. The Vandals pushed their win streak to eight with a 95-77 victory at Montana State on Thursday night.
The loss also drops Montana (12-13, 8-6 BSC) all the way to seventh place in the Big Sky standings, still just half a game out of third but trending in the wrong direction with a tough four-game schedule ahead to close out the regular season.
In other league games on Thursday night, Northern Colorado kept its slim lead atop the standings with an 85-63 victory at Northern Arizona.
Idaho State won 83-71 at home over Sacramento State, Portland State upset Weber State in Ogden, 62-60, and North Dakota won 68-53 at Southern Utah.
Northern Colorado is 11-3, Idaho is 10-3, while Idaho State, Weber State, Portland State and Eastern Washington are all 8-5 as teams jockey for a top-four finish and a bye prior to traveling to Reno next month for the Big Sky tournament.