RENO, Nev. – The last few weeks of the regular season left the Montana Lady Grizzlies reeling and banged up.
But the postseason provided a fresh start.
Montana matched its highest-scoring total of the season in the first round of the Big Sky Confernece Tournament, racing past Sacramento State in the fourth quarter to an 87-80 win on Monday.
Neither team held more than a six-point lead through the first three back-and-forth quarters. Then the Lady Griz finally pushed to a bigger advantage. Montana’s lead reached 10 early in the fourth but was cut down to four and six on several occasions. A Madi Schoening corner 3-pointer and four free throws by McKenzie Johnston with less than two minutes left provided the final 7-0 run the Lady Griz needed to finally put away the Hornets.
Johnston continued her outstanding sophomore season with one of the top performances of her Montana career. The point guard from Helena scored 28 points on 10-of-14 shooting from the field. She also only committed just a single turnover in 39 minutes handling the ball against Sacramento State’s relentless full-court pressure.
Montana also got a big helping hand from Caitlin Lonergan off the bench. The 6-foot-2 sophomore kept fighting for great position in the post, scoring 18 points and pulling down eight rebounds in 24 minutes.
Lonergan’s contribution was needed even more Monday, because starting forward Jace Henderson continues to be hobbled by an ankle injury suffered a week ago. The junior emotional leader of the Lady Griz did not play in the first half, but did grit through six painful minutes in the second half.
The injury to Henderson, coupled with the season-ending injury to freshman breakout star Sophia Styles in early February, contributed to a late-season swoon for Montana. The team led the Big Sky standings near the midway point of the season but lost six of its final seven games to fall to the No. 8 seed.
The fresh start in Reno was just what the doctor ordered.
“We’ve had to deal with a lot of adversity. With all of the injuries, it feels like there is always something going on,” said Johnston. “But it’s made us a stronger team. I think it’s really made us come together and be a close team.”
“This team is so gritty,” added head coach Shannon Schweyen. “I just love the way that they fight and continue to battle no matter who we lose and who’s not playing. It’s just a huge tribute to the kind of kids that they are, that when the chips are down they just buck up and get after it.”
The next time the Lady Griz push their chips to the middle of the table will come against a much higher-ranked opponent. Montana will now meet top-seeded Northern Colorado in the Big Sky quarterfinals at 1 p.m. Mountain Time Wednesday. The Bears swept their two regular-season meetings, winning 68-50 in Greeley and 64-58 in Missoula.