(Editor’s Note: Story by Griz Communications)
MISSOULA – When the clock hits all zeroes and the game is complete, the points showing on the scoreboard are all that matter. Style points are immaterial, and for that the Lady Griz can be thankful.
Montana went 10 for 25 from the line and turned the ball over 18 times but still managed to do just enough to turn away pesky Weber State on Thursday night at Dahlberg Arena in Missoula.
The Lady Griz (11-11, 6-7 BSC), who never led by more than eight, snapped a three-game losing streak with a 64-56 victory over the last-place Wildcats.
And at the end of the night, Montana finds itself just half a game out of fifth place in the Big Sky Conference standings.
“It wasn’t pretty, but we’ll take it,” said coach Shannon Schweyen. “Obviously it was a struggle. We talked about good teams being able to come up with ways to win games like this. I’m proud of the way we battled.”
Montana led 33-31 at the break and never trailed in the second half. The Lady Griz even had one of their better shooting nights of the season, at least from the field, finishing at 48.1 percent.
But turnovers limited Montana to 52 shots, its third lowest total of the season, so shooting a good percentage was only going to accomplish so much.
The Lady Griz also spent most of the night pounding the ball inside to Jace Henderson. It was good strategy. She went 7 for 10 to finish with 15 points and seven rebounds. And when the shots weren’t there, she led both teams with five assists.
She also got to the line 11 times, and that revealed the only weak link in her game. She went just 1 for 11 to drop her season free throw percentage to 51.2.
That figure becomes an even bigger head-scratcher when you learn she leads the Big Sky in field goal percentage at 59.0 percent. Which means she’s more effective with multiple defenders on her back than when the game’s at a standstill and she has the ball in her hands at the line.
Montana missed 10 free throws in the fourth quarter alone, and that allowed the Wildcats to keep hanging around.
“Jace could have had a monster game had she made some of those, but that’s the nature of it,” said Schweyen. “When you’re struggling, it gets tougher and tougher to make it.”
Like Henderson at the free throw line, it also doesn’t make total sense that Weber State (5-19, 2-12 BSC) is now a 19-loss team, with just four Division I wins.
The Wildcats have the dynamic J’aiamoni Welch-Coleman, all 5-foot-3 of her and all go, at the point, a skilled Emily Drake on the perimeter and post players who don’t collect a lot of style points but still find a way to get it done.
That balance was on display in the first quarter, when the Wildcats hit three 3-pointers and had Montana in a 17-17 deadlock after 10 minutes.
“We let them get off to a good start, and you never want to do that with a team that’s been struggling to score,” said Schweyen. “They were knocking down threes and kind of scoring at will.
“(Welch-Coleman) is really quick and can get it going. The big challenge with them is their bigs can shoot it. If you get in there and try to plug things up, they can get kick-out threes. It makes them hard to guard when she’s doing her thing.”
It didn’t help that Montana wasn’t protective of the ball. If it wasn’t passes that couldn’t quite thread the needle — a needle that wasn’t always there — it was Weber State help defenders moving in on unsuspecting ball-handlers.
The Lady Griz had nine turnovers in the first half, nine in the second. It probably only seemed like Welch-Coleman had in hand in all 18.
“It felt like we were dribbling a little too much when she was around,” said Schweyen. “She either stole it or knocked a bunch away. We needed to do a better job of our awareness.”
Gabi Harrington got Montana going in the first half, scoring 11 of her 13 points. In the second half the story was Emma Stockholm, even though she took just two shots.
She grabbed six boards in the second half and had a huge steal while defending a post entry pass with 1:36 left and Montana clinging to a 57-53 lead.
That came a few minutes after creating another Weber State turnover. She attempted to draw a charge, but it wasn’t called. But the contact forced a traveling violation, with nothing showing up in the box score for her heady play.
“Emma was huge tonight. She was my player of the game,” said Schweyen. “We talked about rebounding and post-position defense. She really held her ground in the post and took it in the chest a couple of times. I was extremely proud of her.”
Montana hit just four 3-pointers in the game. Two came in the fourth quarter, and they were key to victory, helping offset the missed points at the line.
Sammy Fatkin hit one early in the quarter, and McKenzie Johnston connected midway through the period to make it an eight-point game. It was only her sixth triple of the season in 29 attempts.
Weber State had three possessions in the closing minutes while trailing by four, but the Wildcats missed a 3-pointer and had a pair of turnovers.
Leave it to Stockholm to hit — surprise! — a pair of free throws with 1:10 to play to make a six-point lead and give the Lady Griz, at last, some breathing room.
“We were struggling trying to find ways to pull this one out. We finally got it done down the stretch,” said Schweyen. “We made some things happen when we needed to.”
The win moves Montana within half a game of Montana State (12-12, 7-7 BSC) for the important fifth-place spot in the league standings.
The Bobcats lost 62-49 at home on Thursday night to Idaho State (16-7, 11-3 BSC), the team the Lady Griz host on Saturday afternoon. And the team that defeated Montana 50-34 last month in Pocatello.
Eastern Washington (7-15, 6-7 BSC) kept pace with Montana by pulling off the night’s biggest shocker, winning in Greeley over Northern Colorado.
In other games, Portland State won at Northern Arizona and Sacramento State won in overtime at Southern Utah.