(Editor’s note: Story by Montana Sports Information)
MISSOULA – The reaction when reading Montana State 75, Montana 71 — the final score between the Bobcats and Lady Griz on Saturday afternoon in front of a raucous crowd at Dahlberg Arena in Missoula — is to look to the end-game moments and see how the outcome was decided.
And while Montana State held off every last attempt by Montana to rally in a game the Lady Griz desperately needed in their hunt for a top-five finish in the Big Sky Conference standings, it was their play over the entire 40 minutes that earned the Bobcats the victory.
Montana State (14-12, 9-7 BSC) hit 10 3-pointers, turned the ball over just nine times and was nearly automatic at the line, going 19 for 21.
In a game that was decided by the smallest of margins, it was Montana State that did all the little things right, and it gave the Bobcats a season sweep of the Lady Griz and likely is going to land Montana in a first-round game in Boise when the Big Sky tournament opens next month.
Had it turned out differently, McKenzie Johnston would have gone down in rivalry lore for her performance, which was highlighted by a banked-in shot from nearly 60 feet at the buzzer at the end of the third quarter.
Instead of Montana State taking a 58-48 lead into the final period and feeling like it had a good handle on the game, it was the Lady Griz who walked onto the court for the final 10 minutes of regulation looking like they were the team on the roll.
Johnston knocked down a pair of mid-range jumpers early in the final quarter while also getting fouled. The second one made it 63-60, and Emma Stockholm scored off a feed from Jace Henderson to make it 63-62 with more than five minutes remaining.
It was the closest Montana had been since trailing 38-37 at the half.
Two more times in the closing minutes Montana would cut its deficit to one, only to come up short in its attempt to tie it or take the lead.
And for the second time in two matchups between the teams, it was Oliana Squires who was the difference.
Her 3-pointer with 3:51 to go answered a Henderson basket and put Montana State up 68-64. After a Montana turnover, she fed Blaire Braxton, who finished for a 70-64 lead.
Squires would finish with 18 points and six assists, going 11 of 12 from the free throw line.
Her two free throws with 1:38 left made it 72-68. Emma Stockholm went 1 for 2 from the line with 1:13 left, Johnston 2 for 2 with 28 seconds remaining, once again making it a one-point game, 72-71.
With the shot clock off, Montana needed to foul and chose Squires. She missed her first, her only miss in 12 attempts, and made the second, giving the Lady Griz the ball down two with 24 seconds for someone to make a play they’d remember for the rest of their lives.
It didn’t come. A potentially disastrous turnover on a post feed was saved off the end line, but it only led to two low-percentage shots.
Halle Wright made two free throws with less than two seconds remaining for the game’s final points.
“That’s part of what we are. We’re playing tired at the end of games and making some tired mistakes, because we basically have eight or nine kids,” said coach Shannon Schweyen, who dropped to 1-5 against Montana State.
“Our starters have some tired moments, but we need to power through those things and try to eliminate the mistakes as best we can. It’s kind of what we are right now with what we have.”
Of course it wasn’t like Montana State was coming at Montana with waves of bench players. The Bobcats, who lost leading scorer Claire Lundberg to a season-ending knee injury earlier this month, only played eight, going just three deep into their bench.
Montana State spreads the floor and uses high screen-and-roll actions with its athletic post players. Everything is about attacking space and either getting to the basket or hitting spot-up 3-point shooters.
It worked to perfection in the opening quarter, as the Bobcats ran out to a 26-21 lead, going 5 of 10 from the arc and a perfect 5 of 5 from the line.
“We let them get off to such a good start. Their strengths are shooting threes and getting to the free throw line. They got too many good looks early and got going a little bit and started feeling it,” said Schweyen.
Madeline Smith made it 36-29 when she connected on her first 3-pointer of the season with 5:24 to play, but Montana would lock down defensively after that, limiting the Bobcats to a single field goal the rest of the quarter.
Gabi Harrington scored five of her 12 first-half points in the final minutes, helping Montana pull within 38-37 at the break.
Montana State put itself in position for the road win with a strong third quarter. The Bobcats got to the line 10 times, making nine, and would have had a double-digit lead going into the fourth were it not for Johnston’s buzzer beater.
From there it was Montana pushing and Montana State holding enough ground that the Bobcats never gave up the lead they took into the half.
As would be expected, it was Johnston and Henderson leading the way for Montana. Johnston scored a season-high 23 points and added nine rebounds and seven assists while going the full 40 minutes once again.
Henderson was limited to five shots by a collapsing MSU defense, but she remained an integral part of the offense.
“Kenzie had a hell of a game. She competed, she kept us organized and made some really difficult dribble jumpers. She battled non-stop,” said Schweyen.
“Jace did a great job finding people out of the double teams. We just needed to knock a few more of those down when she’s kicking them out.”
Montana only committed 14 fouls, but four were charged to Emma Stockholm. That gave Abby Anderson a bigger role, and she responded, scoring four points, grabbing three rebounds and blocking a pair of shots in eight effective minutes.
“Abby had a really good one. She came in and gave us some good minutes and was a big factor on defense. I’m proud of her effort tonight,” Schweyen said.
But nothing was quite enough to overcome Montana State, which led for nearly 35 of the game’s 40 minutes, including the entire second half.
“It wasn’t for lack of effort. I’m proud of the way the ladies kept working hard,” said Schweyen. “We just couldn’t quite come up with an answer.
“You have to make shots, so credit to them for making 10 threes and 19 of 21 at the line. It’s little things in ball games that can make a big difference.”
Montana drops into seventh place in the Big Sky standings, behind Eastern Washington, with the loss and now faces a challenging turnaround. The Lady Griz will play Northern Colorado in Greeley on Monday night. The Bears haven’t played since last Saturday.