(Editor's note: University of Montana media release)
POCATELLO, Idaho – The Grizzlies march on! Facing a do-or-die regular-season finale, with its season on the line, Montana went into to Pocatello and beat Idaho State, 3-1 (31-29, 22-25, 25-17, 29-27). The victory punched Montana's ticket to the Big Sky tournament for the second year in a row.
"We as a coaching staff are just so proud of what this group has accomplished this year," head coach Allison Lawrence said. "We're turning into the team we've been trying to become. We get to keep going and fighting together as a team, which I'm so excited about."
The accomplishment of qualifying for the conference tournament is impressive considering where this program has been. Over the past two decades, just two other groups have qualified in back-to-back seasons, with the Grizzlies doing so in 2013 and 2014 and again three years in a row from 2008-10.
The accomplishment is more impressive considering where this team started the season. Without its starting setter and playing mostly freshmen, Montana lost the first 25 sets it played. Things got a little brighter come Big Sky play, but still, Montana was unable to gain results, entering the back half of the conference season with a 1-8 mark.
On Oct. 25, not many people believed that Montana could accomplish what it did on Saturday.
But then the turnaround started. The Grizzlies got a win over Portland State, followed by a huge upset on the road at Montana State. At that point, the tide began to shift and belief inside the Montana locker room started to become a little more real.
"Those two matches really set the tone for the rest of our season," Lawrence said. "Getting those two wins, back-to-back, really launched us into a different version of ourselves. Through the first half of conference we had potential, but it was all about who we were becoming. In the last month, we finally became it."
Over the final five weeks of the regular season, Montana won at least one match every week to stay in contention. And while the Grizzlies will play as the No. 8 seed and face regular-season champion Northern Colorado on Thursday, it's clear that Montana – even with odds against the team – is not one opponents want to face.
Just ask, the five teams Montana beat during the back half of conference play. Three of the wins came on the road. Three of them came against tournament teams who will also be in Sacramento next week. Overall, of the seven teams that Montana lost to in the first half of conference play, the Grizzlies ended up beating four of them in Round 2.
Saturday was one of those. Idaho State came to Missoula on Oct. 17 and picked apart the Grizzlies, with the Bengals' middle blockers having their way against the Grizzlies. All three sets were fairly tight, but Idaho State walked away with a 3-0 sweep.
It was a different story on Saturday, with the Grizzlies asserting their excitement early by scoring the match's first five points. After Idaho State mounted a late comeback, the Grizzlies fought off three set points before finally winning the marathon set, 31-29.
The two teams entered the locker room tied at 1-1 after Idaho State closed on a 7-1 run in Set 2 – erasing Montana's 21-18 late lead – but Lawrence still felt good about where her team was at.
"Getting that first set was huge for us emotionally," Lawrence said. "It set the tone, and they were chasing us after that. Even in the second set, when they came back to win, I felt like our players were poised and confident."
The Grizzlies came out and rolled in the third set, using a 9-0 run – including three service aces – to build a 14-7 lead. The advantage grew to as many as 10 points, as Montana out-hit the Bengals, .316 to .091.
The tide shifted in the fourth set, with Montana calling an early timeout already down 8-4. Idaho State stayed in front, leading by as many as seven points, 17-10. The Bengals were one point away from sending the match to a deciding fifth set, but then Montana showed just how good it has become under pressure.
In addition to fighting off three set points in the opener, Montana did it again in Set 4. The Grizzlies trailed 24-21 before they worked their way back to a 24-24 tie, with the rally igniting from an Missy Huddleston/Catie Semadeni block.
Montana faced set point again at 25-24 and again at 27-26 – meanwhile the Grizzlies had an opportunity at 26-25 – before Amethyst Harper took over.
Trailing 27-26, Montana turned to its freshman outside hitter three times in a row. She delivered each time, recording her final three kills and sending the Grizzlies into elation.
"Point for point, you could see us gaining physical and emotional advantages," Lawrence said. "It felt like we had control, even when we were down, and clearly we believed that we could be calm enough to finish it out.
"This team grows so much during matches, and I'm just amazed by how much better we get each time out."
Harper finished with 21 kills, which tied her career high. She did so on .388 hitting, making just two errors on 49 swings. During the first set, she became Montana's all-time freshman kills leader, entering the Big Sky tournament with a team-high 342. Whitney Pavlik (326 in 2002) held the previous record.
Montana was efficient all around, hitting at a .261 clip. In addition to Harper, Semadeni had a career-high 12 kills, Elsa Godwin added 11 and Janna Grimsrud totaled eight without an error (.364 hitting).
The Grizzlies totaled eight service aces, with four coming from Godwin and several coming at big moments in the match. The Grizzlies also recorded a season-high 95 digs, including 24 from Sarina Moreno (she also added back-to-back aces), 19 from Harper and 17 coming from Huddleston (who had a team-high four blocks).