(Editor’s Note: story by Montana Sports Information)
MISSOULA – You know that feeling you get when you spend even a small amount of time around Jace Henderson, the one that makes you wish you could be in her sphere of influence more often, bringing you in as she does with a personality that is welcoming, engaging and energizing?
If you don’t, it’s your loss. If you do, then you’ll understand why she was named the Shannon Green Most Inspirational Player for the second consecutive year on Thursday evening as the Montana women’s basketball program handed out its annual awards at its postseason banquet.
And do you remember how Montana resembled a donut two seasons ago, without anything in the middle, and how Henderson, somewhat unexpectedly, stepped up and filled that void in 2017-18, making the Lady Griz more whole and winners of 14 games compared to just seven the year before?
That’s why she was voted the Mary Louise Pope Zimmerman Most Valuable Player in voting by her teammates and celebrated on a night when Caitlin Lonergan, Sophia Stiles and McKenzie Johnston also were honored.
Henderson, the player who averaged 2.7 points on 32.1 percent shooting as a redshirt sophomore, emerged as a consistent threat last winter, averaging 8.8 points on 47.4 percent shooting while grabbing a team-high 7.2 rebounds per game.
“Jace was a pleasant surprise,” said second-year coach Shannon Schweyen. “It was so rewarding to see her hard work pay off for her. We needed an inside presence this year, and she responded in such a positive way.”
Henderson put up 10 points and eight rebounds in Montana’s season opener, at Wyoming, and never really stopped producing, her number of off games countable by the fingers on one hand.
More often than that were the games when she played at an all-conference level. There was the 12-point, 12-rebound effort in a home win over Sacramento State, only to be overshadowed by what she did two days later against Portland State. It was her season’s magnum opus.
Operating in the heart of a zone defense, with a shot-blocker holding down the middle, Henderson put her footwork, shot fakes and finishing touch on full display, scoring 16 points on 8-of-11 shooting and adding 13 rebounds. And then there were the four assists without a turnover.
It was the type of performance, more virtuoso than merely athletic, that would not have been possible the year before, when her offensive game was based on grabbing offensive rebounds and scoring on the putback.
“She just looked more relaxed in the post this year. She looked like she knew what she was doing with the ball at all times and really put on a post clinic in a couple of games,” said Schweyen. “She developed a variety of moves she’s comfortable with and became a force to be reckoned with.”
And when a team’s MVP and Most Inspirational Player come in a single package, even a roster that will see a major turnover between last season and next is in good hands.
“Jace is just a natural leader, very charismatic. She’s not afraid to speak up in good times and tough ones. She has a lot of natural leadership qualities and has the kind of personality that people are drawn to,” said Schweyen.
Henderson probably could have won the Grace Geil Most Improved Player award as well had it not been for Lonergan, whose tantalizing performance at the Big Sky Conference tournament in March in Reno only makes it harder to accept she won’t be back after deciding to go all in on her academic pursuits.
Facing Sacramento State in the first round and eventual tournament champion Northern Colorado in the quarterfinals, Lonergan averaged 18 points on 65 percent shooting and 8.5 rebounds. With Henderson limited in Reno by an ankle injury, Lonergan went from complementary to ascendant.
“It was fun to see as the season went along how she got more and more comfortable as she understood the offense and where and how she could hurt teams,” said Schweyen. “She just started getting more and more dominant.”
Lonergan looked the part from the start — 6-foot-2 and athletic enough that she began her collegiate career playing volleyball at Montana State — but she was a basketball ingénue when she arrived in Missoula in January 2017.
She wouldn’t be allowed to play, due to NCAA transfer rules, until the following December, but Schweyen couldn’t contain her excitement when talking about what she was seeing on the practice court, away from the public eye.
Lonergan was raw but she might have been the strongest post player the coach had ever been around in her three decades in the sport at the collegiate level. Indeed, that became Lonergan’s calling card when she made her debut against Southern Utah five days after Christmas last winter.
With her career now finished at just 19 games played, this will be the lasting image of Lonergan: getting the ball deep in the post and finishing through the contact of one or multiple defenders, like she had hardly noticed at all that she’d been harmed in a way that would have sent most players to the floor.
“Anyone who is changing a sport is going to need some time to adjust,” said Schweyen. “Sitting out that year and only practicing was a difficult thing, but she made big strides. When she did finally take the court, it didn’t take long to realize she was going to be a force
“Her size and her ability to finish with contact were unbelievable. Literally she could get bodied and fouled and hammered, and just finish plays like it was no big deal.”
Of the milestones, both good and bad, that defined the 2017-18 season, the first and most noticeable was planted alongside the Road to Reno on Oct. 6, when Kayleigh Valley’s once limitless but ultimately melancholy journey came to an end with the second snapping of her ACL.
It was four months minus three days later that the same thing happened to Stiles, who entered the season as a likely redshirt but by late January was emerging as a future star.
It’s no coincidence that Montana’s stretch of 11 wins in 15 games, between the start of December and the end of January, mirrored the rise of Stiles, who first found herself getting minutes because of her defense.
It was just rare to see a college-level player badgering a college-level ball-handler like Stiles did, as if she was still going up against high school opponents in Malta’s gym. And she did it confidently, as a true freshman.
“What stood out right away was how she was picking people up and working them. It’s been a long time since we’ve had somebody put good pressure on people and be a threat to get some points out of it,” said Schweyen, who awarded Stiles on Thursday the Julie Deming Outstanding Defensive Player.
“She has an overall sense and basketball IQ. She can see two things at once, which a lot of freshmen can’t do when they come in. It’s exciting to think of how good of a defender she will eventually be.”
If it was her defense that got her on the floor in her first season, it was her emergence as an offensive threat that had her starting and playing 30-plus minutes at the time of her injury.
Her last game as a non-starter? That was at Southern Utah, when she scored 26 points to come within one of the Montana freshman scoring record, filling it up every way imaginable. She hit three 3-pointers, shot 8 for 11 overall and finished 7 for 7 from the line. And added six boards and four assists.
“It’s always a luxury when you have a kid who can give you both (offense and defense) and you don’t have to give something up when they’re on the floor,” said Schweyen. “She was just beginning to get comfortable in what she was doing. It was fun to see her blossom.”
But the story of the 2017-18 Lady Griz will be that of Stiles. As it had been with Valley. Just when it was looking so promising, everything was taken away. And repeat.
There is a photo of the play when Stiles tore her ACL, taken from the baseline. She was elevating over North Dakota’s Lexi Klabo, gracefully, just off to the side so as not to create too much contact. She was floating in the photo, ball in her right hand, ready to score with a soft bank off the glass.
Maybe it was the overhead strobes, but there is a glow to the photo, of a bright future. And then she landed. And everything changed.
Montana would pull out a win over the Fighting Hawks on a late basket by Taylor Goligoski, but that was one of the final hurrahs of the season. With Stiles sidelined and Montana facing a tough back-half of its league schedule, the Lady Griz would close with just two wins in their final nine games.
“After losing Sophie, we had a harder time defending people. We played teams with great guards, like Idaho and Northern Colorado, and we were down a person to take on those tough assignments,” said Schweyen. “To lose maybe our top perimeter defender made those tough matchups for us.”
Through it all, from Valley’s injury before the season barely began to Stiles’s injury that proved to be too much to overcome, the face of the Lady Griz that probably came to mind was Johnston, one of the players left standing who took on the ever-increasing load and kept performing.
It’s why she was named the winner of the Theresa Rhoads Award, or the player who best represents Lady Griz basketball.
Johnston, last year’s MVP, led the team in scoring (12.5/g) and assists (5.0/g), grabbed 5.5 rebounds per game and shot 42.6 percent. But the award is more than that, and so is Johnston. In the classroom she has a 3.82 GPA as a health and human performance major.
“A lot of people from Helena who knew Kenzie and knew what a great kid she was told us what we were getting, and she’s been a very good representative of our program,” said Schweyen.
“She bought into what we wanted to do and worked hard in the weight room and gym on improving her game. On top of that, she’s a fabulous student and a kid who volunteers and does things behind the scenes that people don’t know about.”
The traits that make Henderson inspirational don’t come and go. It’s who she is. That’s why she was voted the Shannon Green Most Inspirational Player for the second straight year.
The same goes for Johnston, now the Theresa Rhoads Award winner for the second consecutive season.
Whatever turnover the roster has undergone, a foundation is in place. Henderson and Johnston will be back, as will all the players who were starting in late January, when Montana was rolling and bringing to life the echoes of the past.
They may have gone quiet, but at Montana they are always there, ready to be stirred up again.
“There are some holes to be filled and opportunities for kids to get some valuable minutes, but when you look at who we have coming back, it’s the starting lineup from when we were playing some of our best basketball last season,” said Schweyen.
“I’m excited about the leadership we have coming back that has battled through things these last two years. There is a lot to be said about the adversity they faced and what they’re hungry for.”