RENO, NV – For most of the Big Sky tournament’s first quarterfinal game eight-seed Montana played right with top-seed Northern Colorado. But a hot start gave the Bears a lead they held until the final buzzer.
UNC hit three straight three-pointers to take a 9-0 lead in the opening minutes, and the Bears never trailed on their way to a 78-69 win over the Lady Griz.
Northern Colorado’s hot start from the outside stretched into the second quarter. The Bears first 27 points all came from beyond the three-point line. They started 9/14 from distance, and missed their only three attempts from inside the arc in that stretch. UNC found many open shots as Montana started in a zone defense, and the success continued as the Lady Griz switched back to their usual man-to-man. By the time the Bears cooled off, they led 27-14.
“They are great shooters. Their three-point game is impressive,” said Lady Griz point guard McKenzie Johnston. “But they also had a lot of wide open threes that we were giving them. And it’s a lot easier to knock it down when you’re wide open. So I think that really hurt us.”
Johnston did her best to keep Montana in the game. The rising sophomore star followed up her 28-point performance in a first round win over Sacramento State with 23 points, six assists, and six rebounds versus the Bears. But she did commit seven turnovers against the Bears quick guards.
Caitlin Lonergan also played her second strong game in Reno, contributing 18 points and nine rebounds off the bench. Junior forward Jace Henderson returned to the starting lineup to pitch in 11 points and nine rebounds in 34 gritty minutes. Henderson missed both games last week, and only played a handful of minutes on Monday because of an ankle injury.
But the Lady Griz, who have suffered through injuries all season long, lost another player as soon as they got one back. Guard Nora Klick had a long-lasting back injury flare up, and didn’t play. Which gave the Lady Griz only one backup guard in a game against perhaps the toughest backcourt in the conference.
Northern Colorado junior guard, and Big Sky MVP Savannah Smith had an off shooting night, finishing 5/18. But she still scored 21 points. Senior guard Savannah Scott added 16 points for the Bears. And another guard of the bench, Tiarna Clarke, chipped in 14 points.
Montana did respond to Northern Colorado’s fast start with a spurt of their own in the second quarter. A Hailey Nicholson bucket cut the UNC lead to 31-25. But the Bears bounced back over the final 4:30 of the half with a 12-2 run, to take a 43-27 lead into the locker room.
The Bears lead remained between 10 and 16 points throughout a back-and-forth third quarter. Then Montana, as they have done so many times this season, made a late push. Twice Johnston cut the lead down to seven. But a huge Scott three ended the first run with 4:44 left. The second run ended in the final minute when the exhausted Lady Griz simply ran out of time.
Northern Colorado improved to 24-6, and will play in the first Big Sky semifinal on Friday afternoon.
Montana’s season ends with a 14-17 record. But even after the difficult defeat, the Lady Griz could focus on the positives after a year filled with adversity.
“For us to do what we did this season, I’m incredibly proud,” said second-year head coach Shannon Schweyen. “And I know we have a lot of great young kids who are eager to get back and get out there. We are still extremely young in the big picture (Montana only has one senior on the roster). And I think it’s very promising what this group was able to accomplish this year.”
“I get a little choked up each time I think of every girl individually,” admitted Henderson. “Cause you look to your left and you look to your right and you’re always going to find somebody who is there for you no matter what. You don’t get 15 girls that support each other like this team does. The culture that we’ve built from 18-22 year old girls is pretty incredible. And I think that’s something that is going to be pretty scary in the future. So I’m excited for it.”