(Editor’s note: story by griz communications)
MISSOULA – It was Savannah Smith early and Savannah Smith late as the reigning Big Sky Conference MVP scored 31 points to lead Northern Colorado to a 73-62 victory over Montana on Saturday afternoon at Dahlberg Arena in Missoula.
Smith, a 5-foot-6 guard who’s the biggest presence on the floor, scored 15 points in the first quarter to spark the Bears to an early 15-point lead and 10 more in the fourth as Northern Colorado (10-4, 5-0 BSC) squelched every potential Lady Griz rally to remain unbeaten in league play.
It was one point off her season high for Smith, who put up 32 on Colorado and can score from any spot on the floor once she’s got two feet across the half-court line.
“She’s one of the most prolific scorers I’ve seen,” said coach Shannon Schweyen. “You might think it’s hard for a small guard to score, but she scores in such a variety of ways, with such creativity, whether it’s step-back threes, splitting the defense, going to the hole, pull-up jumper. She’s got it all.”
Smith is a handful for any team at full strength, which the Lady Griz (8-7, 3-3 BSC) were not on Saturday afternoon.
Taylor Goligoski, who missed Thursday’s game with an injury, was back but not at full strength and could only go 23 minutes. Katie Mayhue sat out Saturday’s game with an injury of her own.
To protect Goligoski and to keep her suddenly thin roster of available guards out of foul trouble, Schweyen opted to start the game with her team playing zone defense and hoped for the best.
Northern Colorado wasted no time taking advantage.
The Bears’ first shot of the game, just 22 seconds in, was a 3-pointer by Alexis Chapman. It was pure. Smith added three triples of her own in the opening period as Northern Colorado raced out to a 22-7 lead in less than seven minutes.
UNC shot 50 percent in the first quarter, going 5 for 11 from the arc.
“We’re a little thin right now with some injuries. We were a little worried Taylor wasn’t even going to go today,” said Schweyen. “We were looking at some zone, thinking that would protect us with some foul issues. Of course, they come out and knock all those first ones down.”
It was the third straight game Montana fell behind big early and was unable to fight all the way back. The Lady Griz never led on Saturday, just as they never held a lead in Thursday’s home loss against Eastern Washington, just like they never had a lead last Saturday in a road loss at Portland State.
Emma Stockholm hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key with four minutes left in the second quarter to bring Montana within five, 32-27, but a 10-1 run, capped by a Smith 3-pointer, pushed UNC’s lead back to double figures. The Bears led 44-32 at the half.
After Montana pulled within eight late in the third quarter, Northern Colorado responded by scoring the next nine points to build its advantage to a game-high 17 points early in the fourth.
One final push got the Lady Griz within six, 68-62, with nearly three minutes still to go. That’s when Smith ended all hope, getting to the basket on the next possession to up the lead back to eight. Montana had no answer.
“She is a load to contain. You have to guard her by committee. It isn’t a one-person job,” said Schweyen. “Everybody has to be alert to where she is at all times, step towards the action she’s involved in and make other people hurt you. I didn’t think we did that well enough.”
Jace Henderson and Gabi Harrington continued their strong play, going 12 for 19 to score 15 and 12 points. Henderson hit seven of her 11 shots and was only limited by the number of times her teammates could get her the ball.
“We had a lot of one-on-one action in the post most of the game,” said Schweyen. “They weren’t doubling down a whole lot, so we were trying to get her to go to work as much as we could.”
Harrington came up one rebound shy of her third double-double in the last five games. Stockholm did as well, finishing with 13 points and nine boards. McKenzie Johnston had 11 points.
Montana doesn’t play again until next Saturday, when it hosts Idaho (7-7, 4-1 BSC), which has a two-person attack to try to contain, with Mikayla Ferenz and Taylor Pierce, who combined to make 14 3-pointers in Thursday’s 82-66 victory at Montana State.
The next week will give the Lady Griz time to not only come up with a game plan but also time to return to full health, particularly on the perimeter, where the Vandals attempt to do most of their damage.
“This week is going to be good for us,” said Schweyen. “We’ve got a lot of ailing things going on right now.”