MISSOULA — (University of Montana media release)
MISSOULA - For the second time this season, Montana went toe to toe with one of the top teams in the Big Sky Conference, once again taking Northern Arizona to five sets. After dominating the fourth set, Montana couldn't finish the match, falling in five frames on Thursday night inside Dahlberg Arena (20-25, 25-21, 25-17, 17-25, 15-10).
A second consecutive five-set defeat – plus another at NAU last month – won't help Montana's overall record, but head coach Allison Lawrence walked away from the match extremely encouraged.
"It's so motivating and so encouraging and I'm so proud of the team that we've become," Lawrence said. "I think we get better every single match, and I think anyone watching tonight can see how resilient we are. We definitely still have moments where we have a breakdown in some area of our game, but we always come back. We were right there."
The competitive showing is even more impressive considering where Montana was at near the start of the season.
NAU, the preseason favorite to win the Big Sky Conference, has won seven of its past eight matches and sits tied for second place in the current standings. Montana is the first team to push the Lumberjacks to five sets since the Grizzlies also did so on Oct. 12 in Flagstaff.
On Thursday, the Grizzlies out-dug (88 to 83) and out-hit (.232 to .231) the Lumberjacks, while also recording 10 more kills.
Montana got off to an incredible start, scoring four of the game's first five points and never trailing in the opening frame en route to a 25-20 victory.
"That allowed us to feel like this was our gym and we could own it," Lawrence said of the hot start. "We executed our game plan perfectly, and we put a lot of pressure on NAU to make adjustments. They did, and from there, it was kind of a tactical, back-and-forth battle on both sides. I think both teams adjusted to each other's strengths really well and kept adapting."
In a tight second set that featured 12 tie scores, NAU closed strong to tie the match at one set apiece, before taking a 2-1 advantage with a 25-17 win in Set 3.
Montana, though, didn't fold. Just last week the Grizzlies fell behind 2-0 against both Idaho and Eastern Washington before rallying to force a fifth frame, including the program's first win at Idaho since 1991.
Montana responded again with one of its most impressive sets of the season. The Grizzlies hit .421 in the victory, recording 17 kills to just one error. They jumped out to a 10-6 lead and led by as many as nine points.
The fifth set was tight initially with the two teams alternating points, but swung in NAU's favor when the Lumberjacks scored five of six points to take an 8-5 advantage. Montana would rally to get within a point, 9-8, but NAU had one more push, scoring the next four points, including three consecutive blocks.
Missy Huddleston, the two-time defending Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Week, was again incredible. The senior had 22 kills on .321 hitting, in addition to 15 digs and a team-high five blocks. She had seven kills in the fourth set alone, which propelled Montana to a fifth set.
Freshman Amethyst Harper recorded 19 kills and a career-most 25 digs. She was one of five Grizzlies in double figures for digs, including sophomore libero Sarina Moreno, who had 20.
Elsa Godwin had her best offensive performance in several weeks, tallying 10 kills in addition to two service aces, while freshman Catie Semadeni continues to find her form on the right side, tallying nine kills at a .348 clip.
"I don't think we walk away feeling defeated; I think we walk away feeling stronger than ever," Lawrence said. "It hurts, because we created an opportunity to win against a really good team and felt like it was right at our fingertips, but we were right there battling, and I think tonight was super motivating for our team."
Montana will play its final home match of the season on Saturday when the Grizzlies host Southern Utah on Senior Night. The Thunderbirds are currently in seventh place in the Big Sky standings and are coming off of a three-set loss at Montana State on Thursday.
With three matches remaining in the regular season, Montana is currently in a three-way tie with Eastern Washington and Idaho State for ninth place. The trio of teams are one match back of Portland State and a top-eight spot for a berth in the conference tournament.
While Montana hosts Southern Utah on Saturday, Eastern Washington hosts first-place Northern Colorado, Portland State hosts second-place Weber State and Idaho State travels to Sacramento State.