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MISSOULA — Many a foe has folded under the pressure that is the atmosphere at Dahlberg Arena when the Lady Griz are making a late push.
The last time Montana won the Big Sky Conference championship, the Lady Griz used a 19-point run to bury a more talented Northern Colorado team to punch Robin Selvig’s 21st trip to the Big Dance.
Even in the midst of an injury-riddled start to third-year head coach Shannon Schweyen’s tenure, the raucous atmosphere in Missoula has helped lift the Lady Griz to an 8-3 home record. That mark includes wins over first-place Idaho and second-place Idaho State, the latter coming UM’s last time out before Saturday’s rivalry showdown against Montana State.
On Saturday afternoon in Missoula, McKenzie Johnston put her teammates on her back. UM’s junior point guard started enforcing her will in the third quarter, capping the frame by banking a 60-foot heave at the buzzer. In the fourth quarter, one of the Big Sky’s most well-conditioned players continued to show her grit and toughness, converting on consecutive 3-point plays to help the Lady Griz continue chipping away.
Montana senior Jace Henderson converted in the lane to extend a 6-0 Lady Griz run with three minutes to play. The 3,847 in attendance rose to their feet, roaring in anticipation of Montana rallying to beat yet another visiting foe. The third and final bucket for UM’s lone senior cut a Montana State lead that had lasted since midway through an entertaining first quarter, to 65-64.
“That’s the loudest crowd I’ve honestly ever heard,” Montana State junior point guard Oliana Squires said. “But we’ve won here before.”
And now the Bobcats are making a habit of it.
For the second straight matchup this season, Squires used her smooth skills to dice Montana. And Saturday afternoon, the junior point guard had ice in her veins.
Squires nailed a step back 3-pointer right after Henderson cut it to one. On the next possession, Squires threaded the needle to classmate Blaire Braxton for an easy left-handed bucket off the glass. Montana State endured UM’s run, instead emerging with a 70-64 lead.
Despite Johnston’s best effort in an iconic Cat-Griz performance and the fact that the Lady Griz had the ball down two with 24 seconds to play, Montana State continued its recent dominance of the Big Sky’s fiercest female rivalry. Squires scored 18 points, dished out six assists and converted 11 of her 12 free throws to pace Montana State to a 75-71 victory in Missoula on Saturday.
“Just being able to stay composed and make plays, don’t rush anything, don’t force anything, just make plays, that’s all we thought all game,” Squires said. “We just weren’t under pressure a whole lot. We just played.
“This feels pretty good.”
MSU has now won seven of the last nine games in a rivalry in which Montana won 70 of the first 90. Montana State 14th-year head coach Tricia Binford has led her team to victory three of the last four times playing at Dahlberg. MSU’s win avenges the lone loss for this junior class to the Lady Griz, a 91-64 drubbing last year in Missoula.
“That was the focus all week long: to erase the first game from memory because it was such a solid win (74-52) at our place,” Binford said after moving to 11-19 in her career against Montana. “We had to give some clarity to some newcomers what Dahlberg Arena is like and how well they play on their home floor in particular and how well they’ve been playing lately after their sweep last weekend.
“I thought they did a great job of understanding the game plan, staying together, knowing that there are going to be runs. I looked at them at the three and a half timeout and reminded them ‘This is what we talked about. This is the adversity, this is the noise, these are the things you have to overcome.
“They stepped up, they found a way whether it was at the foul line (MSU went 19-of-21) or getting a critical stop. It was multiple kids.”
The Bobcats have been without lone senior and leading scorer Claire Lundberg for three weeks. The Seton Hall transfer was averaging 17.8 points per game before she suffered a career-ending tear to her ACL.
Montana State has leaned heavily on its junior class, led by Squires, Braxton, center Madeline Smith and wing Martha Kuderer.
On Saturday, Kuderer drilled her first two 3-pointers, helping set a pace that saw the Bobcats hit seven of their first 12 shots from deep against UM’s zone defense.
On the other end, Gabi Harrington was shooting the lights out, hitting three 3-pointers in the first 16 minutes of the game on the way to a 12-point first half.
But Braxton said it best when asked about her team’s ability to handled Montana’s late run. Beating the Lady Griz is basically all her and her classmates have ever known.
Schweyen has been a central figure in the Cat-Griz rivalry for three decades. UM’s all-time leading scorer then served as one of Selvig’s assistants for more than 20 years. Since taking over, Schweyen’s roster has been decimated, from losing preseason Big Sky MVP Kayleigh Valley to a career-ending knee injury before the season in Schweyen’s first a head coach to a quartet of season-ending injuries this winter.
In Montana State’s 74-52 win over Montana in Bozeman earlier this season, the Bobcats used a pick-and-roll offense that features Squires’ flossy skill set helped MSU roll through UM’s defense. On the other end, the Lady Griz could not find the mark against Binford’s zone.
On Saturday, the Lady Griz solved the zone in a clean, entertaining first half in which both teams shot more than 50 percent. MSU sophomore Ashley Van Sickle hit a 3-pointer in the corner opposite the Lady Griz bench at the halftime buzzer to give Montana State a 38-36 lead.
The game turned into a slugfest in the third quarter, getting so physical at one point that four players, two from each team, fell to the floor in a scuffle for possession and the ruckus caused Kuderer’s right shoe to fall off.
The Bobcats cooled off from beyond the arc, making 3-of-11 in the second half after drilling 7-of-16 in the first half as Schweyen countered with a zone of her own.
Johnston scored nine points in the third quarter, including the highlight heave that cut a 58-48 Montana State lead to seven. Playing in her fifth straight 40-minute game and her 11th overall this season, Montana’s effort leader took over the game. She hit a pair of free throws with 28 seconds left to cut MSU’s lead to 72-71.
The Helena Capital product with roots that trace back to Anaconda and Butte put up a memorable stat line. She hit a season-high three 3-pointers — she entered the action just 6-of-30 from deep this season — on the way to a season-high 23 points. Playing for the third straight game without the mask she had to wear for the first two-thirds of the conference season, Johnston also grabbed nine rebounds and dished out seven assists.
“She always brings it,” Squires said.
But Squires answered back in a classic battle between junior point guards. After 10 straight makes, Squires missed the first free throw as the Lady Griz were able to foul just four seconds into the next possession. Squires hit the second, pushing the lead to two with 24 seconds left. Schweyen used her final timeout.
“The victories we’ve had here, it really has taken some really steady, composed point guards, you think of Katie Bussey and Hannah Caudill but Oliana is definitely in that mix,” Binford said. “We really, really got settled in our offensive play with our tempo and Blaire is such a good leader for us, that absolutely was the key to be able to bounce back when they made their run.”
On a frantic final possession, Henderson had the ball stripped but managed to make an amazing save that helped the Lady Griz maintain possession. Johnston had a leaner that would’ve tied the game lip out, but Henderson grabbed her 10th rebound. After almost turning it over, Johnston was able to save the ball off a Bobcat, giving UM possession under the basket with six seconds left.
Montana ran a play for Johnston, who caught the ball in the middle of the lane, drove, incurred contact and forced a wild shot and did not receive a foul call. Braxton grabbed the rebound, outletted the ball to Halle Wright and another MSU freshman came up in the clutch.
“She definitely likes to drive in the lane and we know that,” Braxton said. “But I think she feeds off of us getting on her even more. Not having everybody go straight to her and get in position for the rebound was very important.”
Freshman Gabbi Mocchi scored seven of her nine points off the bench in the first half. Wright, who joined Squires and sophomore Tori Martell (12 points, four 3s) in double figures with 10 points, stepped to the line with the crowd once again roaring and calmly knocked down two free throws with 1.7 seconds left for the final margin.
Johnston’s magical heave came 10 minutes too late as her last-gasp chuck at the buzzer fell well short, the disappointment of the completion of MSU’s second sweep of the Lady Griz in three years painted on the faces of Montana’s players.
Selvig won 835 games in his 38 seasons at the helm, earning a spot at or near the top of the long list of legendary coaches who have worked in the Treasure State. Since his retirement, Binford, now the veteran coach in the Big Sky, has ruled Montana.
This year’s Bobcat squad features just three players from Montana, none who played in the game on Saturday. But a group with largely Minnesota roots has certainly had the upper hand against its bitter rival since Selvig retired.
“It’s definitely one of our goals to sweep the Lady Griz every season,” Braxton said. “I guess I heard it’s only happened twice and we’ve been a part of both times. To be a part of that is really cool and something we look forward to getting to try every year.”
Photos by Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved.