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Montana Lady Griz come up short in Big Sky Conference semifinals against Northern Arizona

Montana vs. Northern Arizona women's basketball
Posted at 5:51 PM, Mar 12, 2024

BOISE, Idaho — When the Big Sky Conference women's basketball tournament bracket pitted No. 3 seed Montana against No. 2 seed Northern Arizona in the semifinal round, everybody inside Idaho Central Arena knew what to expect.

The conference's two highest-scoring offenses entertained fans in a fast-paced, back-and-forth and sometimes frenetic game Tuesday afternoon, with the Lumberjacks ultimately holding off the Lady Griz for a 74-67 win.

"We both are teams that like to play fast, like to get up a lot of shots and so, especially in the semis as well, there's different pressures and whatnot," said Montana guard Gina Marxen. "I think going into it, we just wanted to do our best, and once we felt that speed and that chaos a little bit, we just wanted to take the time to chill out and take control of the game."

The opening four minutes saw both teams aggressively attack the basket and get up quick shots. Montana made just 3 of 17 field goals in the first quarter. Northern Arizona wasn't much better at 6-of-20 shooting, but the Lumberjacks settled in quicker and closed the period on a 6-0 burst to take a 13-8 lead.

NAU pushed the advantage to as many 13 points in the first half and eventually went into the break leading 38-29.

But, like they did in the quarterfinal round on Monday, the Lady Griz found their footing in the third quarter. Mack Konig made three 3-pointers in the frame, and Maggie Espenmiller-McGraw made two free throws with two minutes left in the quarter to bring Montana all the way back to a 51-51 tie.

"At halftime down nine and came out in the third quarter playing the right way, and we just couldn't get over the hump is really it," said Montana coach Brian Holsinger. "Whether it was bad play calls by me or missed shots by them or whatever. We didn't get timely defensive stops that they got."

Northern Arizona took a 55-53 lead into the fourth and, after a 3-pointer from Sophie Glancey and a Grace Beasley bucket led 60-53 less than 60 seconds into the fourth. Montana again rallied back with six straight points before Beasley made another 3. She added another dagger 3 later in the fourth.

"You have to give your credit to NAU, they banked two 3s in the second half, one from straight away, one's a corner bank shot that goes in. What do you do on those? Those are heart-breakers," Holsinger said. "You're battling, you're battling, and they make two shots like that, it's tough. We just couldn't quite get over the edge."

Beasley, a former Montana State Bobcat, finished with 18 points, seven rebounds and three assists. Glancey had a double-double of 21 points (on 8-of-12 shooting) and 11 rebounds. Leia Beattie, another former Bobcat, added 13 points and five rebounds for the Lumberjacks. Northern Arizona, coached by Havre native Loree Payne, will play top-seeded Eastern Washington for the conference title at 3 p.m. Wednesday.

Konig and Carmen Gfeller each scored 21 points to pace Montana, while Marxen and Espenmiller-McGraw each had nine. Espenmiller-McGraw made one 3-pointer in the game, her 75th of the season to tie the single-season record set by McCalle Feller in 2015-16.

Dani Bartsch grabbed 11 rebounds, giving her a program-record 321 on the season.

"Although we didn't reach our main goal (a Big Sky championship), I think we had a great season. We broke a lot of records. We had a 20-win season, which hasn't happened for a long time," said Marxen, who has spent the past two seasons with the Lady Griz after starting her career at Idaho.

"There's obviously still room to grow, but this program is just continuing to go up. And to be part of that these last two years for me has been so special. When I played against Montana, this was always the team to beat, so to be on that other end has been just amazing."

The loss drops Montana's record to 22-9, but Holsinger doesn't believe his team's season is over.

"If we get a chance to play in a postseason, that's also another milestone that hasn't been done with Lady Griz basketball for a long, long time," Holsinger said. "And so, personally I think we've done enough ... and I think we'll get into one of those tournaments."