MISSOULA — For the first time since early March, Missoula played host to an official college basketball game.
That possibility seemed like a long shot many times, but Monday officially arrived, and, after coming off of two cancellations last week, the Montana Lady Griz won their home opener over North Dakota, 86-72.
Typically the highest draw for fans for women's basketball in the Big Sky Conference, Dahlberg Arena was eerily quiet in what felt like a scrimmage setting but was as real as a game gets.
Coming off of a redshirt season, sophomore Carmen Gfeller once again made a big statement with a career-high 27 points and five rebounds, while junior guard Sophia Stiles recorded a double-double with 21 points and 10 rebounds to go along with five steals, two blocks and two assists as Mike Petrino earned his first win as the head coach of the Lady Griz (1-1).
But the new normal for college basketball and playing without home fans is still going to take some getting used to for UM.
"It's so weird playing without a crowd," Gfeller said. "Fans know that we have record-setting crowds every time, but we still have a ton of support from people, whether that's through emails or texts or calls. We just really appreciate all of our fans out there still representing us and still cheering for us from behind their TV screens."
"I guess the positive is we have so many new players they have no idea what the difference is," Petrino added. "We have so many new players they have no idea what they were missing. But for our returners and us, it was surreal. When you're used to playing in front of a great crowd, when you don't have it, it's different."
Junior Abby Anderson also added 13 points and three blocks, senior Madi Schoening scored nine points and grabbed eight rebounds, and junior Hannah Thurmon tallied nine points, as well, going 3 for 6 from deep.
Stiles and Gfeller attacked quick and often offensively, but North Dakota kept things close, including Makayla Wallace's layup before the buzzer to tie it 16-16 at the end of the first quarter.
But in the second quarter, Montana began to create some distance. After trailing 26-25, UM went on a 13-2 run as Gfeller and Stiles combined for 10 of those points to take a 38-28 lead at the break.
Montana led by as many as 15 points three different times in the third quarter, but North Dakota got back within four points twice in the fourth quarter, the second time coming with 2:41 left. But UM responded with an 8-0 run to push its lead to double digits for good, and Schoening added four straight free throws in the final 38 seconds to ice the game away.
Utilizing a mid-range game that included turnaround jumpers along with an improved post game, Gfeller finished 11 for 17 from the field and 1 for 2 from deep as North Dakota had no answer for her. As a team, Montana went 30 for 61 (49.2 percent) from the field and 6 for `15 (40 percent) from beyond the arc. The Lady Griz also finished 20 for 27 from the free throw line and out-rebounded North Dakota 42 to 32. Montana also forced 12 turnovers.
"I think a lot of it is my teammates really trusting me," Gfeller said. "We've been practicing for five months straight now, and so I think we're finally getting a feel for each other. I trust them to get me the ball, they know that I'm going to go to work when I have it and I trust them to keep moving and keep making plays, and so we're just getting the hang of things as it goes."
Julia Fleecs scored 23 points to lead North Dakota (0-3) and Maggie Manson added 21 for the Fightin' Hawks who as a team shot 40 percent (26 for 65) from the field and 32 percent (8 for 25) from deep.
It served as a special day for Petrino, who not only got his first win as the Lady Griz head coach but told media afterward that Monday was the first time he got to see the rest of his family after a two-week quarantine kept them all apart.
"I'm just proud of the kids," Petrino described the victory. "I'm proud of (assistant coaches) Jordan (Sullivan), Nate (Covill) and Jace (Henderson) and J.C. (Weida), our trainer, because he got our players ready. J.C. is dealing with COVID and our team and all of the injuries we had. I'm just proud and happy for them, that's what it's all about."
Notes: Montana saw 11 players take the court for the Lady Griz -- nine with double-digit minutes -- as Petrino continues to work with a number of new faces in UM uniforms compared to last year's roster. Stiles and Gfeller took the court with true freshmen Willa Albrecht of Billings, Kyndall Keller of Havre and Karsen Murphy of Glendive at one point and Albrecht and Keller each saw more than 10 minutes of game action. ... The last college basketball game played in Dahlberg before Monday was on March 7 when the Griz men hosted Southern Utah. ... The next scheduled game for the Lady Griz is Sunday against Gonzaga in Spokane, Washington.