RENO, Nevada — Long shooting droughts have plagued the Lady Griz all season. Montana caught fire in the fourth quarter but an empty third frame ultimately doomed UM as North Dakota sent the reigning Big Sky Conference champions packing.
Montana used a 22-6 run in the fourth quarter to turn a lopsided game into Wednesday’s second straight thriller. With seven seconds left and Montana trailing 63-62, Alycia Sims committed a turnover. After two free throws from UND’s Kelsey Knox to push the lead to 65-62, McCalle Feller had one last chance. The UM senior took two dribbles, set her feet and launched a high-arcing shot from a step inside half court. It hit the front of the rim and fell to the floor as the UND bench erupted in jubilation.
Montana dug itself a 16-point hole thanks to not making a shot for the first nine minutes, 15 seconds of the third quarter. The Lady Griz almost battled back, but like all season, the cold shooting spelled doom for Montana.
“I have no clue what happened,” said UM 38th-year head coach Robin Selvig, who has led his team to 21 Big Sky Tournament titles in his career. “We shot so poorly in the start of the game, we are lucky we played some defense. Basketball gets real simple. When you are making shots, you are pretty good and when you are not, you are not.”
North Dakota stayed red hot by using smothering defense to harass Feller and the Montana guards all game. UND won for the 14th time in 16 games after a 3-10 start. The fourth-seeded Fighting Hawks will face ninth-seeded Idaho State, an upset winner over No. 1 Montana State thanks to Juliet Jones’ 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“Today, you saw a very good basketball game between two teams, but you saw the University of North Dakota women’s basketball team take a step forward in our process,” UND head coach Travis Brewster said. “Our ladies played so hard and withstood some adversity. We played a great basketball team who is well coached. Coach Selvig, he is what college basketball is about. He’s raised the bar for the conference. For us, we are trying to strive to get to that level. I’m proud of this team.”
Selvig is among the successful coaches in the history of the women’s game. His Lady Griz earned their 31st 20-win season. Selvig has won 24 conference titles and advanced to the NCAA Tournament 21 times. In 38 seasons, he has won 865 games.
Over the past three-plus decades, the Lady Griz have benefited from hosting the tournament more than any other team. UM has hosted the Big Sky Tournament on 22 different occasions, advancing to the NCAA Tournament 20 times. Montana is 20-2 in championship games in Missoula, the only losses in 1987 to Eastern Washington and 2007 to Northern Arizona. UM has advanced to six other Big Sky Tournament championship games, winning just one.
“I was one that wasn’t in favor of (the neutral site),” Selvig said. “The conference office has done a great job but the one thing we need to fix is we have been on the road for a whole bunch of games in a few days, a whole bunch of traveling and there needs to be a little time before. You shouldn’t be heading here on the weekend, which almost every team had to do. Every team had to do it. We need to figure out something about that. Too much school missed, No. 1. We are going to get back even though we hoped we would miss some more.”
The Lady Griz went the first nine minutes, 15 seconds of the third quarter without a field goal. Montana missed 14 straight shots and seven of the team’s nine points in the frame came at the free throw line. UM trailed 30-28 entering the period and UND entered the final quarter with a 51-37 lead.
The North Dakota lead swelled to 56-40 when Makailah Dyer drilled a 3-pointer with seven minutes, 56 seconds to play. Like it has all season, Montana turned to junior power forward Kayleigh Valley, the best low-post scorer in the Big Sky. Valley’s layup at the end of the third quarter seemed to open the floodgates. She scored 15 of her 30 points in the fourth quarter as Montana came roaring back.
“Mentality is all it is,” said Valley, a first-team All-Big Sky selection. “We know it’s crunch time. We had to pull together some sort of run the last 10 minutes. We shouldn’t have dug ourselves that big of a hole in the first place. Mental toughness is the biggest thing.”
Feller, one of the deadliest long-range shooters in the league, hit her only 3-pointer in 10 attempts to cut the lead to 58-48 with 4:38 left. Valley scored four straight to cut it to 58-55 with 3:13 left. Dyer answered with a layup and Valley missed a jumper on the other end.
On UND’s next offensive possession, Knox was called for an offensive foul, a whistle that caused Brewster to explode. The gigantic North Dakota head coach earned himself a technical, leading to two of Valley’s 15 free throw conversions and awarded Montana the ball. UM senior Haley Vining caught a pass from Valley and knocked down a 3-pointer for a five-point possession that tied the game at 60.
“I knew we needed it,” Vining said. “I set my feet and shot it. That was huge and the next play, Kayleigh got the ball inside and went up and we took the lead again finally. At that point, we had the momentum for the last minute of the game.”
Montana took its first lead since midway through the first half on Valley’s final field goals — she finished 8-of-23 — but Leah Szabla’s sweet take to the basket and left-handed finish knotted the game at 62 with 58 seconds left. On the next possession, Valley was called for an offensive foul, her fifth and final of the game.
With Valley on the bench, UND went to first-team All-Big Sky power forward Mia Loyd, who drew a foul and converted one free throw. With seven seconds left, Montana threw the ball to Sims but Loyd stripped her. Knox knocked down two free throws, Feller’s last-ditch effort fell just short and UND advanced.
“We just trust in each other,” said Dyer, a second-team All-Big Sky selection who scored 16 points on Wednesday. “We are used to close situations at the end of games but trusting in each other helps us get through it.”