(Editor’s note: Story by Montana Sports Information)
MISSOULA — The Montana women’s basketball program handed out its annual awards on Tuesday night at the team’s postseason banquet. Fittingly, the number of recipients was limited in number.
In another season that was partly defined by who wasn’t in uniform on any given night as much as who was, it was three season-long constants in the lineup who collected the five annual awards.
Senior Jace Henderson doubled up for the second straight year as both the Mary Louise Pope Zimmerman Most Valuable Player and Shannon Green Most Inspirational Player.
Junior McKenzie Johnston received for the third straight year the Theresa Rhoads Award as the player who best exemplifies Lady Griz basketball. She also was named the Julie Deming Outstanding Defensive Player.
The Grace Geil Most Improved Player award was presented to Gabi Harrington, who took an unusual path to becoming a redshirt sophomore last season.
Harrington played as a true freshman in 2016-17, when she was largely one-dimensional, her game defined by the 3-point shot. More than half of her attempts that season were from the arc.
She would then redshirt as a sophomore, a move that resulted in big returns last winter as a third-year sophomore, when a new, all-around game was put on full display.
Harrington’s scoring jumped from 3.9 to 11.0, her rebounding increased from 2.3 to 6.3.
She took the exact same number of 3-pointers both seasons — 72 — but took 172 more shots overall last year, many closer to the basket, part of the reason her shooting percentage improved from 29.8 to 40.3.
“Obviously we knew Gabi was a shooter when we recruited her. We had no idea she had the ability to score inside the way she did this year,” said coach Shannon Schweyen.
“She became a force in the post for us, whether it was by cutting and getting to the basket and shooting over people or by rebound put-backs. That part of her game really emerged this season and made her so much more of a complete player.”
Harrington, whose dedication to the weight room powered her breakout season, had three double-doubles during the season and six more games when she came up a rebound short.
She became so effective at turning the focus of her game from the outside in that her coaches had to occasionally remind her that there was still a 3-point arc painted on the floor. And that she was still a weapon from distance.
“She had great success getting to the basket this year. She can elevate over people, so she became a good finisher around the hole. It was incredible to see how she evolved that way,” said Schweyen.
But … “there were times she’d forget about outside shooting. We’d have to remind her not to pass up the open three.”
In the long, distinguished history of the Lady Griz basketball program, its teams over the decades have been filled with any number of impressive student-athletes.
Yet Johnston now stands alone in one in respect. She becomes the first three-time winner of the Theresa Rhoads Award.
What is it you’re looking for? Success on the court? She reached 1,000 career points in Montana’s Big Sky Conference tournament game against Southern Utah, with still one more season to go.
In the classroom? She holds a 3.86 GPA as a health and human performance major.
Healthy perspective? She’s missed one game in her career. That came in December, when she skipped out on a home game to attend her sister’s wedding, sticking to her belief that the Lady Griz family is everything … unless blood family needs her more.
The part that’s hard to define? The one that’s maybe best told through a visual? Make your way to the mass of people outside the team’s locker room after a home game and it’s possible you won’t find Johnston. That’s because she’s usually surrounded several people deep, from young to old.
Even the photo atop her Twitter page isn’t about her. It’s about the five young girls she’s with, who, given their obvious enthusiasm at meeting one of their heroes, want to grow up to be just like her.
“This award is such a perfect fit for Kenzie,” said Schweyen. “She’s an incredible student, she’s involved in projects and people’s lives in the community. She’s the type of kid we love to have in our program.”
That she also won the Julie Deming Outstanding Defensive Player award might come as a surprise. She’s not Carly Selvig, whose ability to block shots made her stand out. And she’s not Sophia Stiles, last year’s winner, who is such a disrupter on the perimeter, whether it’s on the ball or off.
Johnston stands out for not standing out, as in the player whose ill-conceived rotation allows a wide-open 3-pointer, or who goes under a screen when the scouting report says in all caps to CHASE HER OVER THE TOP, or who takes away a player’s left when her entire game is based on going to the right.
Sometimes doing the right thing, time and time again, is award-worthy. It only swings votes if you’re one of the team leaders in charges taken, especially if it’s accomplished while wearing a mask to protect an already broken nose. There is a reason people call it the most selfless play in basketball.
“As the injuries happened and we lost so many perimeter players who were good defenders, obviously there was a huge gap there for people who needed to take on that role,” said Schweyen. “She was probably our best person for understanding what we wanted to do with who we were guarding.
“She’s always been one who’s done a lot of the dirty work, like stepping in and taking charges with a facemask on. That takes guts. She does all those little things.”
Henderson will long be remembered for the Saturday afternoon in mid-January when she eviscerated Idaho’s game plan and put up 31 points on 13-of-17 shooting and 12 rebounds as the Lady Griz took down the Vandals.
But there was a moment in that game that better defines her journey from Griz volleyball player in 2014 to four-year Lady Griz basketball player.
The specifics of the play don’t necessarily matter. Henderson would have caught the ball in the post. Then it was as if time stood still for her but not for anyone else. Commotion everywhere but only calmness from her.
With so much happening — people cutting here and there, defenders approaching her who may be there to help on her or not, her own defender likely trying to take one of her moves away — she surveyed it all. Then acted. And it was usually the right decision.
And it led to a pretty sweet statistics resume: She led the Big Sky in shooting percentage (.561) — the second-best mark in Lady Griz history — and ranked in the top 20 in scoring (12.0/g), the top 10 in assists (3.7/g) and the top five in rebounding (8.6/g).
All from a player who had 116 rebounds and 107 points through her first two years in the program.
Hers is a story that shows the result of hard work and dedication in pursuit of a goal. And not even a goal as much as a desire to be the best player she could become.
“One of the reasons Jace was such a popular player is because people just loved watching her emerge,” said Schweyen.
“People always talk about how the game finally slows down for somebody, and we really saw that happen with Jace this year. She looked incredibly comfortable in the post. To have a post player lead you in so many statistics, it’s just so rare to see that.”
That alone would have made for an inspirational tale and player, but here’s the thing Schweyen kept repeating all winter, as more and more attention was directed at her lone senior:
Henderson was the same person as a freshman volleyball player as she was as a little-used Lady Griz underclassman as she was after being named second-team All-Big Sky Conference in March.
The foundation that Henderson uses to guide her life isn’t swayed by playing time or starting roles or awards. She is who she is, same as she’s always been.
“She is the type of kid you want around your players, especially when you have a young group of kids like we did this season,” said Schweyen. “You know they’re going to be hearing the right things in the locker room.”
Perhaps you, too, were inspired.
“She’s a kid who plays with a lot of passion, someone who was always ecstatic for her teammates on the floor. She made other people around her better this year by what she did,” added Schweyen.
And with that, the offseason has officially arrived.