(Editor’s note: University of Montana media release)
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – For two of the three sets on Saturday, Montana showed its potential, hanging with a strong Northern Arizona squad point for point. However, the Grizzlies also showed the strides they must make in order to join the upper echelon of the Big Sky Conference, scoring just nine points in the second set and falling late in sets 1 and 3 in a three-set loss (25-23, 25-9, 26-24).
Northern Arizona, a team picked to finish second in the Big Sky preseason poll and one that knocked off No. 8 Florida last month, hit .287 in the match, recording 45 kills and 79 digs. The Lumberjacks needed each of those to hold off the Grizzlies, who lost by the minimum two points in two of the sets.
“I feel like that match showed that we are starting to put actual, sustained pressure on the top teams in the conference,” head coach Allison Lawrence said. “We don’t do it consistently, but I felt like we were close.
“It’s a different attitude form the group. Everyone was hyper-focused in our walk through and our practice last night, and had a hunger to make it happen.”
The Grizzlies jumped out to a 5-2 lead to open the match. A 3-0 run put the Grizzlies back on top at 17-16, and Montana again led a few points later, before the Grizzlies eventually fell in a tight set that was well played by both sides. Montana, in fact, out-dug NAU – ranked No. 17 nationally for digs – 29-26.
“We were ready to dig, and when we were hitting our blocking assignments, we were really slowing them down,” Lawrence said.
Montana again held an early lead in Set 2, 3-0, but after that it was all Northern Arizona. The Lumberjacks used a 10-0 run – tied for the largest by a UM opponent this season – and closed the set by scoring 16 of the final 18 points.
“Our serve-receive broke down, and we spiraled from there,” Lawrence said.
Montana hit -.135 (6-11-37) while NAU hit .500 (11-0-22).
Credit the Grizzlies, though, who again were able to move past an ugly second set and jump out to another 3-0 lead to begin the third set.
This time, the lead was more sustainable. Montana had five blocks in the frame, including a stretch of three blocks during a four-point span, and led for the majority of the set. The Grizzlies looked as if they would extend the match to a fourth set, leading 22-18, but NAU again showed its prowess.
Back-to-back errors and an NAU kill brought the Lumberjacks to within one. Two kills later, Montana called timeout with the match tied at 23-23. The Grizzlies were able to fend off one match point, but couldn’t do it again, falling 26-24.
“You can’t play a team like NAU and give them any unearned points if you want to upset them,” Lawrence said. “Down the stretch, we gave them a string of unearned points and you could feel the momentum build for them.”
Mykaela Hammer had a team-high eight kills, but just two after the first set. The senior had six kills and zero errors in Set 1. Maddy Marshall also had eight kills, while Missy Huddleston added six. Setting up the offense was Ashley Watkins, who had a double-double with 25 assists and 10 digs, in addition to a block and service ace. Sarina Moreno added 23 digs to finish the weekend averaging an astonishing 6.9 digs per set.
Montana will return home with a 4-2 record in Big Sky play and will host Eastern Washington (Thursday) and Idaho (Saturday) this coming week.
“NAU is a very good team,” Lawrence said. “They’re really hard to get out of rhythm, so for us to block them well, it’s really hard to do. I thought we executed really well in sets 1 and 3, so we need to build off of that.”