(University of Montana release)
MISSOULA – History will soon forget some of the particulars — an uncalled banked shot as the game’s big moment? — but will long remember the result of a thrilling championship contest of the 38th Lady Griz Classic.
Montana trailed by five at the half and by six early in the fourth quarter but closed with a flourish to defeat UC Davis 62-56 on Sunday afternoon to improve to 72-4 all-time at its home tournament.
Shooting 33.3 percent through three quarters, Montana hit nine of its 11 shots in the fourth to outscore the Aggies (3-5) 24-12 in the final frame.
“It was good for us to be in that environment, when we’re behind and have to chip away at it like that,” said coach Shannon Schweyen. “It was great to have the crowd get into it. The crowd was great today.”
Jace Henderson averaged 15 points on 64-percent shooting and seven rebounds over two games — Montana defeated Northern Illinois 86-70 on Saturday — to earn MVP honors.
McKenzie Johnston, who averaged 16.5 points and 6.5 assists, was named to the all-tournament team.
They were two of the five players that Schweyen stuck with as the fourth quarter got into crunch time — Katie Mayhue, Gabi Harrington and Emma Stockholm were the others — and that unit delivered.
After UC Davis went up 53-48 on a 3-pointer by Karley Eaton with less than five minutes to go, Henderson answered with another of her tough finishes in the paint and Harrington hit the first really big shot of her career, a 3-pointer that tied it with 3:33 left.
Mayhue dropped in a running floater in the lane less than 30 seconds later to give Montana its first lead of the second half, 55-53.
Eaton connected from the arc again to make it 56-55 with 2:47 remaining, but that would be the Aggies’ final lead and their final points.
Henderson muscled in the go-ahead shot, and with 61 seconds left and Montana clinging to a 57-56 lead and the shot clock running out, Stockholm banked in a straight-on 17 footer to put the Lady Griz up three.
“That’s not how we drew it up, but that was a huge bucket at the time,” said Schweyen, whose team had four players in double figures, each of whom added two or more assists.
“That was the great thing about the weekend, the balance our team had. Multiple scorers, multiple kids getting assists. It makes us harder to guard when we have kids doing that.”
With the game in the final minute and the margin at three points, Harrington had a steal (yes!)/turnover (no!) combination that gave UC Davis its final chance, but Cierra McKeown’s 3-pointer was off the mark.
Johnston hit one of two free throws with 11 seconds left to make it a two-possession game, and Stockholm knocked down two of her own with six seconds remaining for the game’s final points.
That lineup, the one that closed so well? Montana was +18 when it was together on Sunday for nearly 11 minutes.
It’s a group that’s, most important, potent up the middle, with Johnston at the point and Henderson doing just about everything well inside. Despite being double- and sometimes triple-teamed, she went 7 for 8 on Sunday.
“She’s so strong and uses the glass well and pivots through contact. She had two or three people on her, and she still goes 7 for 8 with a high degree of difficulty on her shots,” said Schweyen.
“And Kenzie had a heck of a tournament. She never looks rattled and keeps us composed and in what we’re supposed to be in. She had a great tourney.”
Harrington — check out this line from Sunday: 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting, eight rebounds, three steals, two assists — is emerging as a player everyone had their fingers crossed hoping she’d become. She’s no longer just a 3-point shooter. Her game is becoming all-around solid.
And Stockholm? She’s coming on in her third year as well, looking like a composed, confident contributor who is adding to the good things Montana is doing. She had her first career double-double on Sunday, with 11 points and 12 rebounds.
It’s just the Harrington is doing it off the bench, which makes it feel like she’s giving the game her own jolt of energy when she steps on the floor.
“Gabi had a huge weekend,” said Schweyen. “She was all over the place in our zone, creating havoc, creating turnovers and getting steals. She’s just a high-energy player with what she brings to the floor.”
UC Davis made the WNIT each of the last two seasons, and it’s been 6-foot-4 forward Morgan Bertsch who led the Aggies there.
Her school’s all-time leading scorer, men or women, she posed plenty of matchup problems for Montana, which had to come up with a way of slowing down the 23-points-per-game scorer in its pregame preparations.
The Lady Griz coaches opted for the same approach Portland State used in its 65-50 victory over the Aggies two weeks back. Pack it in around Bertsch and accept that her teammates would get some quality looks from the perimeter. And hope they don’t get hot.
Davis’s shooters had their moments — they made 10 triples after all — but they came on 40 attempts. Nearly two out of every three shots the Aggies took came from beyond the arc.
“I can’t say enough about how hard the girls played,” said Schweyen. “The girls really bought into the concept that we had to pack it in and make them beat us from the perimeter.
“Bertsch is the real deal, one of the best players I’ve ever seen. She’s a scoring machine, so we felt that was probably the best way to try to contain her. They knocked down some threes, but we still felt like it was better to pick our poison than let her get the ball easily.”
Like it did on Saturday, Montana got off to a fast start against the Aggies, building an 18-12 lead through the first quarter. But after going 0 for 8 from the arc in the first quarter, Davis knocked down four in the second quarter, four more in the third.
From midway through the second quarter and into the fourth, Montana never led, but the Lady Griz also did enough defensively to give themselves a chance.
“It was awesome to see the girls get moving and understand what we were trying to do, and we did a fantastic job on the boards,” said Schweyen.
“It think it just reiterates the fact that if we learn to play D and we play good offense, we can play with anybody. We’re going to have nights when we struggle offensively, but if we can defend, we can be in every ball game.”
Bertsch finished with 13, more than 10 points below her average, but she hit a pair of shots early in the fourth quarter. Both put her team up by six and made it feel like the game might be slipping away.
But then it was closing time, and Montana’s bouncers finished the deal, with each of the five making a big play or two.
“We had some stretches when we were scoring it easily early, then we hit a dry spell right before half,” said Schweyen. “Thank goodness we got it going in the fourth quarter.
“That was a really good basketball team. It’s encouraging to get these (wins) because we have a tough road in front of us the next four.”
Montana will play at Arizona (6-1) on Wednesday and at Grand Canyon (2-4) on Friday before traveling to Seattle for the Husky Classic in two weekends.
The Lady Griz will open with Washington (5-3), then face either Boise State (5-2) or Saint Francis (2-4).