STORY BY MONTANA SPORTS INFORMATION
POCATELLO, ID – Montana fell behind 12-2 in the opening minutes in its game against Idaho State on Friday night in Pocatello and never caught back up, dropping a 72-60 decision in the final regular-season game for both teams.
The Lady Griz (13-16, 9-9 BSC) have lost six of seven going into next week’s Big Sky Conference tournament in Reno and will play as the No. 8 seed, and if they need any confirmation that it can be done, they need look no farther than the other team walking off the floor on Friday.
Idaho State made the Big Sky tournament championship game each of the last two seasons, as the No. 9 seed two years ago, the No. 6 seed last March.
“Everybody’s going down there with a clean slate. I wish we had a little more depth, obviously, but we don’t,” said coach Shannon Schweyen, whose team will face No. 9 Sacramento State at 1 p.m. (MT) on Monday.
“When this team is shooting the ball well and playing well, we’ve got a chance, so why not us? We’re going to go down there, take our matchup and do the best job we can do.”
McKenzie Johnston scored 15 points, and Montana got 25 points from its four-person bench against the Bengals (19-10, 11-7 BSC) on Friday, but every attempt to rally from its early deficit came up short.
The Lady Griz cut Idaho State’s lead to six in the second quarter, six in the third quarter and, what grew to a 17-point advantage after three periods, to seven in the fourth, but it was never enough to close the gap on a team that shot 52.1 percent and had five players who scored nine or more points.
“It was a valiant effort in the second half. Kenzie and the crew went to work and made some runs, but they kept answering,” said Schweyen. “We needed to get some more stops.
“We were getting kicked pretty good there for a while, but we made a game of it. They keep storming back into games, one possession at a time. I can never count this team out.”
It was a struggle all night for Montana to slow down Idaho State. The Bengals aren’t the Big Sky’s highest-scoring team, but they are its best-shooting team, and they showed why against Montana.
Idaho State shot 7 for 12 in the first quarter to build a 19-12 lead at the first break, and the Bengals would shoot 52 percent in the first half, 52.2 percent in the second.
“They shot the ball really well. All in all, it just took us too long to adjust to some of the things they were doing,” said Schweyen.
“They get you running around out there with their motion, back-screening you, fade-screening you. You’ve got to be communicating non-stop.”
For the second game of the road trip, it highlighted the absence of Jace Henderson, who had to sit out Wednesday’s loss at Weber State as well with an injury.
Maybe more so on Friday was her presence missed. Idaho State is the Big Sky’s most physical team, and Henderson is Montana’s most physical player.
“This was a physical game. It always is with them, and she’s someone who thrives on that. We were missing that for sure,” said Schweyen.
“We missed a lot of shots in close. We needed someone to be aggressive in there. It felt like our post players were timid.”
Idaho State shot the ball well, and that was coupled, at least in the first half, with Montana turnovers. The Lady Griz had seven in the first quarter alone, 10 in the first half, many coming on passes into or out of the post.
“We talked about them doubling in the post, and I thought that was a big key in the game,” said Schweyen. “We did not handle that well. We were too nonchalant. We looked like we’d never seen it before.
“We just didn’t handle it well, and it led to too many turnovers in the first half. It cost us a lot of buckets and possessions.”
Montana trailed 33-25 at the half and had Idaho State’s lead down to six, 37-31, when Hailey Nicholson hit a pair of free throws with 7:25 left in the third quarter.
But the rest of the period belonged to the Bengals, who would go 7 for 11 for the quarter, 3 for 4 from the arc. That included a pair of triples from Dora Goles as Idaho State built its lead to 56-39 by the end of the quarter.
Montana would score the first six points of the fourth quarter and get the lead down to seven on two occasions, but that would be as close as the Lady Griz would get.
The Bengals shot it too well and had Grace Kenyon, who led both teams with 17 points on perfect 7-of-7 shooting. She also had six rebounds, four assists, three blocks and three steals.
“She’s hard to defend,” said Schweyen. “She’s very explosive. She’s a nice player.”
And so Montana, in a season that started with so much promise, will head to Reno on Saturday with nine healthy players, the No. 8 seed and a matchup against a Sacramento State team that defeated the Lady Griz by 15 points three weeks ago.
“I’m proud of the way this team has battled through conference. We’ve faced a ton of adversity, and they just keep trying to win games,” said Schweyen.
“We’re going to Reno, and whether we have Jace next week or not, we just have to make the most of what we have.”
The winner of the Montana-Sacramento State game on Monday will face top-seeded Northern Colorado at 1 p.m. (MT) on Wednesday.