MISSOULA — The injury bug continues to rear its head in the Montana Lady Griz basketball program. Despite a couple more hitting Wednesday, UM dug deep and buckled down behind big performances from their seniors to top Loyola Marymount University 82-68 during School Day at Dahlberg Arena.
School Day is an annual promotion UM does with local elementary schools, and just under 6,000 students were in attendance for the game in one of the loudest and more fun environments of the year at the university.
"I love it, it makes me smile more than it hypes me up," UM head coach Brian Holsinger said with a laugh. "They don't necessarily know when to cheer and when not to cheer and it's like this constant buzz. In the fourth quarter there's this buzz going around but it's awesome. These kids, there's times when they get really excited and it's a blast."
"It's just chaotic but we love it," senior forward Carmen Gfeller added, laughing. "LMU comes running out and the kids go crazy, we come running out and they go crazy. I love how excited and happy they are to be here, that's super special and any chance I can get to play in front of 6,000 fans is awesome."
Maggie Espenmiller-McGraw (24 points), Gfeller (21) and Gina Marxen (16) combined for 61 of Montana's points on Wednesday, while MJ Bruno added nine. Espenmiller-McGraw led the team with seven rebounds.
"Adversity, there was a definitely a lot of that in this game," Gfeller said. "I'm really proud of our team just for how we continue to respond. There's some times where the game got a little closer, but we just kept chipping away, and there's always going to be runs in basketball, but how we responded to that was really good."
Montana started fast and went back-and-forth with LMU in the opening quarter, but toward the end of the first frame, sophomore guard Libby Stump came down awkwardly after getting fouled and was down for a prolonged period of time. She was helped off the court by trainers and was unable to put any weight on her left leg, and later she emerged with a brace on her knee and was on crutches.
Afterward, Holsinger had no further update on Stump other than it was a knee injury. Her status will need to be monitored going forward as Stump is one of the team's best scorers and averaged 10.0 points per game as a freshman last year. Stump typically comes off of the bench as an instant-offense performer.
Later in the second quarter, UM also saw junior forward Dani Bartsch exit the game with a noticeable limp. Bartsch, the team's best defender and rebounder and breakout star from a year ago, was dealing with a hip issue, Holsinger said, and it appeared Bartsch had taken some hard falls earlier in the game. Bartsch led UM with four assists and three steals in the game before leaving midway through the second quarter and didn't return, though she did stay on the bench cheering and watching the team the rest of the game.
These two latest injuries come as Montana has been dealt plenty of bad luck to start the year. Freshman guard Macy Donarski suffered a season-ending knee injury before the season started, and junior forward Imogen Greenslade, a transfer from Arizona State, also recently suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice, Holsinger said, after appearing in just three games this season.
"It hurts us," Holsinger said. "That's why you recruit and have depth. Injuries occur, they just do, and for whatever reason we've had a rash of them here. It's frustrating and disappointing, to be honest, but everybody has them and so you've got to respond and figure out ways to win games still."
Through that adversity, UM's vets and seniors carried the day for the Lady Griz as UM was up 33-32 at halftime, and though LMU got close multiple times, the Lady Griz never relinquished the lead before eventually finding a way to distance themselves from the Lions.
Marxen scored 13 of her points in the third quarter as the Lady Griz got back on track. Espenmiller-McGraw had 11 in the third quarter as well after scoring nine points in the first half. Then later, they got some help as Haley Huard came up with a big 3-pointer that put UM up 57-47 with 1:40 to to in the third quarter.
"We fought through it," Holsinger said. "We regrouped at halftime and played a really good offensive second half. The team can score, we're just continuing to work on defense and not giving easy shots. Really pleased with our effort with all of the adversity we experienced."
"Last year and a little bit this year we've struggled coming into third quarters," Gfeller added. "I think it's a huge point of emphasis and it starts with us leaders getting our team together and figuring out what we're doing on screens and how we're executing offense. Just getting everybody on the same page is super important for us and so to be able to be vocal and have that authority on the court is really important."
Gfeller, who scored 12 first-half points, scored nine in the final quarter while Bruno scored all of her nine points in the final frame to help close the game out for the Lady Griz.
"Huge," Holsinger said about his seniors. "Gina Marxen came in and really stabilized everything, really made everybody comfortable and put everybody in their spots and did the right things. Carmen inside got some mismatches and made some huge baskets. And Maggie made (big) shots."
UM (3-2) shot 46.7% from the field and went 10 for 22 from deep. The Lady Griz out-rebounded the Lions 38 to 33 and forced LMU into 15 turnovers. LMU (2-6) shot 42.6% from the field and 9 for 19 from 3-point range as Amaya Oliver scored a team-high 19 points.
Montana is back home again for its next game as it hosts Colorado State (7-0) on Saturday at 7 p.m.