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Montana Lady Griz build big lead, then hold off Idaho for fourth straight win

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Posted at 10:44 PM, Feb 01, 2024

(Editor's note: University of Montana news release)

MOSCOW, Idaho — Brian Holsinger’s third Lady Griz team is good enough to win a Big Sky Conference championship. It’s also prone to frustrating lapses, like Thursday night in Moscow when a 24-point halftime lead was just enough to get the job done on the road.

Up 45-21 at the break, the Lady Griz (15-5, 7-2 BSC) gave up 47 second-half points and needed 11 big points from Carmen Gfeller, part of her 24 for the game, in the fourth quarter to hang on for a 79-68 win.

In Montana’s two league losses, at Northern Colorado and at Montana State, the Lady Griz gave away 14 point leads in both by allowing the Bears and Bobcats to outscore them by a combined 35 points in the second half.

While Thursday’s outcome never felt in doubt after the opening minutes, the Vandals (10-10, 3-5 BSC) twice cut their deficit to six late in the fourth quarter.

Mack Konig answered the first by hitting a 3-pointer, one of her career-high five triples and her 18 points. Gfeller answered the second with a powerful and-one with 1:22 to go that made it 73-64.

“This team is going to put me in my grave,” said Holsinger, whose program snapped a seven-game losing streak in Moscow with the win. “But I’m proud. We haven’t won here since I’ve been here. Anytime you’re breaking streaks, it’s a good thing.

“We just continue to be really good on offense and continue to be inconsistent on defense, so then we had to pull it out in the end.”

Montana had been almost unstoppable offensively over its previous three games, averaging 86 points on nearly 50 percent shooting, and the Lady Griz looked equally unstoppable in the first 20 minutes on Thursday night.

Montana went 15 for 27 (.556) in the first half and hit 9 of its 14 attempts (.643) from the 3-point line to build a 45-21 advantage 20 minutes in.

There was no indication that things were going to tighten up through most of the third quarter, not after Gina Marxen, in her return to the school where her collegiate career began, hit a 3-pointer to make it 61-38.

But the Vandals scored the final five points of the third quarter to make it 61-43 entering the final period, then kept coming. They got the lead under 10 with 3:47 to go and twice made it a six-point game.

Idaho put up 47 second-half points on 18-of-32 shooting while turning the ball over just one time in the game’s final 20 minutes.

Montana hung on by going 11 for 22 (.500) in the second half, hitting five of eight attempts from the 3-point line and going a perfect 7 for 7 from the free throw line.

“The first half we obviously executed and defended the right way,” said Holsinger. “The second half we didn’t defend or play right. For whatever reason, we decide it’s going to be easy in these games when we get up big.”

Kennedy Johnson led Idaho with 26 points on 11-of-19 shooting. She scored 19 points in the second half on 8-of-11 shooting.

“Credit to them. They came out and got more aggressive and we got less aggressive,” said Holsinger. “That never works in basketball. The aggressor wins. The one who is being assertive wins. They came out and were assertive. We let them do that and gave up a big second half.”

With the game tightening up in the fourth quarter, it was Gfeller who came to the rescue. Her teammates got her the ball at the block against a defender who had no help and time and time again the veteran delivered, scoring 11 points in the period and making all but two of Montana’s shots.

Her 24 points were a season high and her 19th straight game with 10 or more.

“Luckily we can score and we have Carmen in the post. We decided to go to her down the stretch and she delivered for us,” said Holsinger. “That’s a really nice thing to have.”

Gfeller and Konig, who was 5 of 6 from the arc, combined to score 42 points and were the only players in double figures. Marxen played a hyper-efficient game, finishing with nine points on one missed shot, one rushed at the end of the shot clock, and had six assists and no turnovers in 27 minutes.

She looks as good as she ever did in three years as a Vandal.

“She’s good. Really good. She plays with the right pace,” said Holsinger. “She understands things and makes great decisions. Obviously there is extra motivation for her here. She was pretty excited about that.”

Montana went 14 for 22 (.636) from the 3-point line, Montana’s fourth straight game with 14 or more makes. Over the last six games, the Lady Griz are 87 for 187 (.465) from the arc.

Dani Bartsch had seven points and a team-high eight rebounds as Montana out-boarded its opponent for the 17th time in 20 games.

The Lady Griz shot a season-best 53.1 percent overall and finished with 17 assists. Montana has 79 assists the last four games against 37 turnovers.

Montana, now alone in second place in the Big Sky, half a game behind 7-1 Northern Arizona, will play at Eastern Washington (16-5, 6-2 BSC) on Saturday at 3 p.m. (MT) in Cheney.

The Eagles, who lost in overtime at NAU on Saturday, dropped their second straight league game on Thursday, falling at home 62-61 to Montana State.