(Editor’s note: Story by Griz Communications)
MISSOULA – Jace Henderson, whose previous career high was 18, scored 31 points on 13-of-17 shooting on Saturday afternoon as Montana snapped a three-game losing streak with a stirring 82-79 victory over Idaho at Dahlberg Arena.
And Idaho coach Jon Newlee, who mostly stuck to defending Henderson with a single Vandal positioned behind her, would have been fine with those 31 points, had he known his Big Two of Mikayla Ferenz and Taylor Pierce would combine to score 48 points and hit 10 3-pointers.
There just wasn’t anybody else, not with Taylor Goligoski and Katie Mayhue sidelined, that he believed could keep the Lady Griz up with his team in a high-scoring game.
What he didn’t account for — and he had no reason to expect it — was a breakout performance by Sammy Fatkin, who Newlee after the game called its “x-factor.”
Fatkin, getting her first career start, scored 19 points, as many as she had through her first six games this season since being declared eligible by the NCAA in late December after transferring from Arizona in the offseason.
She hit six of her nine shots, went 3 for 4 from 3-point range and gave Montana some quick-strike lightning to go along with Henderson’s game-long thunderous performance in the paint.
“Sammy really needed a game like this, when she was going to get a lot of reps and be out there a bunch and get comfortable,” said coach Shannon Schweyen, who defeated Newlee for the first time as a head coach.
“You’ve got to keep in mind, she was at a different school last year. She walked into this place and has had to learn our system and all our sets. That can be challenging. It’s easy to get overwhelmed because you’re thinking too much. She’s beginning to relax and just play on instinct.”
Fatkin had two big baskets early in the fourth quarter, just as it was beginning to feel like Idaho was starting to gain the advantage, after the teams went into the final period tied 60-60.
A pair of offensive-rebound put-backs by Lizzy Klinker gave the Vandals a 64-60 lead. Montana needed someone to respond. Fatkin was ready for her moment.
Her 3-pointer made it 64-63, and she scored in the paint three minutes later to keep Montana within a basket, and that set up the dramatic final five minutes.
There would be three lead changes in three minutes before Pierce tied the game for the final time at 73-73 with 2:23 to go.
After a turnover by both teams, Montana went back to what had worked so effectively all game. Henderson got the ball in the post with just over a minute left and scored through contact. The and-one made it 76-73, and the Lady Griz would hold on through the end.
“Jace was just an animal tonight,” said Schweyen. “She absolutely made them pay in the paint. As easy as she made it look, those are not easy shots. Huge credit to her for playing a lot of minutes and studding it up today. She is the heart and soul of this team.”
But a three-point lead on Idaho entering the final minute is nothing, not for a team that hit 14 3-pointers on Saturday.
Ferenz missed on her chance to tie it, and McKenzie Johnston, less than automatic from the line since donning the mask that protects her broken nose, was perfect on a pair of free throws with 42 seconds left that made it 78-73.
“I contemplated telling her to take off the mask,” said Schweyen. “Those were huge.”
Pierce needed just 11 seconds and a spot within a zip code of Dahlberg Arena to remind the 2,795 in attendance that it wasn’t time to celebrate quite yet.
Her three from a spot on the floor probably closer to the half-court line than the 3-point line made it 78-76.
It was a display of shooting that probably had more than a few Lady Griz fans having to hold back from clapping in appreciation. Instead they collectively gasped and shook their heads.
Henderson made one of two free throws at the other end to make it a three-point margin, the most uncomfortable of leads against the Vandals, but Ferenz missed a triple with 12 seconds to go and Henderson collected the rebound. And that was it.
Fatkin hit two free throws, Gabi Harrington added another with two seconds left to make it 82-76, the game’s final margin. Until Gina Marxen connected from just inside the half-court line for the final points at the final buzzer.
It was a reminder that few teams ever beat Idaho as much as they survive them.
“They are a tough team to defend with the way they shoot threes,” said Schweyen. “They try to get mismatches, so you’ve got to be up on all their actions. I thought we did a heck of a job finding ways to answer. It was a really fun basketball game to watch.”
It’s Ferenz who is on track to become the Big Sky Conference’s all-time leading scorer later this season, but it was Pierce who did most of the damage on Saturday, hitting eight 3-pointers and scoring 28 points.
Ferenz added 20, but they came on 22 shots, 14 of which she missed. Her 10 rebounds and five assists both led Idaho.
“They are really talented basketball players,” said Schweyen. “They spend a lot of hours in the gym, and you can tell.
“I wouldn’t want to play them in a game of P-I-G. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t get a letter on those two. They are something else, really talented.”
Schweyen got three players off the bench and into the game for some minutes in the first half, but she stuck with her starters — Henderson, Fatkin, Johnston, Harrington and Emma Stockholm — for all but the final minute of the second half.
It felt so unlike Montana, but injuries have made it so.
Toward the end, both teams emerged from timeouts walking slowly back onto the court, looking like fighters entering the final rounds.
“I kept looking out there and asking, Are they getting too tired? Are they going to be able to make it down the stretch?” Schweyen said. “But I felt like they were just as tired. It was kind of a matter of who was going to be able to hang in there until the very end.”
Idaho’s largest lead in the game was five points, Montana’s was seven. The Vandals had the advantage at the arc, the Lady Griz at the line. Idaho had just 11 turnovers, Montana only nine. It was that tight throughout.
Montana led 17-15 after one, 40-36 at the half. Pierce’s 12 third-quarter points on four 3-pointers helped the Vandals pull even heading into the fourth.
The plays that had the fans gasping, in both amazement and exasperation, were Idaho’s long-range triples. Henderson’s work wasn’t as dazzling but just as effective. And on this day it was enough to get her team the win.
“We did a nice job of taking what they gave us,” said Schweyen. “We talked in pregame of how we needed to hurt them in the paint, and we did.” Did she ever.
Montana will play its next five on the road, starting next week at Idaho State and Weber State. Then it’s over to Bozeman to face Montana State. Finally it’s on the road to Idaho and Eastern Washington.
“We needed that one today with a tough stretch coming up,” said Schweyen.