RENO, Nevada — Northern Colorado wasted no time throwing a resounding first punch against a scrappy Montana teams with an upset on their minds. The Lady Griz fought back throughout the rest of the game but UNC’s red-hot shooting start was too much for UM to overcome.
The top-seeded Bears drilled seven 3-pointers in the first quarter and nine triples in the first 11 minutes of the game against Montana’s recently implemented zone, then extinguished every Lady Griz counter punch in a wire-to-wire 78-69 victory in the opening quarterfinal Wednesday at the Reno Events Center.
“We came ready to play,” UNC junior Savnnah Smith, the Big Sky MVP, said following a 21-point effort. “We, especially the upper classmen, know what it’s like to go back into that locker room after a loss and didn’t want it to happen again so we came out as hard as we could.”
Montana limited Northern Colorado to 3-of-9 from beyond the arc in the second half and allowed just eight made field goals after halftime, but the Lady Griz traded two-pointers for 3s for most of the game. UNC hit 12 shots from beyond the arc compared to Montana’s three triples, the exact margin of victory for the regulars-season outright champions.
“We started the game as good as we could’ve started the game, got off to a hot start and played a really, really well played first half,” UNC head coach Kamie Ethridge, the Big Sky Coach of the Year, said after her team’s 24th win. “We guarded fantastic and everything we wanted to do, we did. The game just changed a little bit – it does. When you have a lead, we might’ve gotten a little tentative and tightened up the clock too much.
“But we played it smart, knew what we were doing, showed great composure and had great leadership with our seniors.
Despite the early 3-point barrage — UNC’s first nine made field goals came from beyond the arc — Montana never let the Bears fully pull away. Tiarna Clarke drilled that ninth triple with 9:08 left in the first half to extend the lead to 27-14. UM responded with an 11-4 run to cut the deficit to six with 4:30 until intermission.
The Bears countered with a 12-2 run to close the first half with a 43-27. That 16-point advantage would prove to be UNC’s largest as the Lady Griz scrapped for the duration of the half behind sophomore point guard McKenzie Johnston’s relentless competitiveness and the tough post combination of junior Jace Henderson and sophomore Caitlin Lonergan.
A pair of free throws from Lonergan — the former Big Sky Freshman of the Year in volleyball at Montana State before transferring to UM — cut the UNC lead to 60-48 entering the fourth quarter. With Montana’s Big Sky champion men’s team cheering enthusiastically, Johnston’s layup with 5:47 left cut the lead to 68-61.
Every time Montana forged a rally, Northern Colorado responded. Behind the unflappable backcourt pair of league MVP Savannah Smith and second-team all-league senior Savannah Scott, the Bears closed out one of the league’s most hard-nosed teams to earn a berth in Friday’s semifinal round.
“We’ve been asked about pressure from a lot of people but I don’t think it’s really been bothering us,” Scott said. “We are in a good momentum right now and we know our one goal so we don’t feel too much pressure.”
Montana finished with a 36-14 advantage in the paint as Lonergan came off the bench to muscle her way to 18 points and nine rebounds. Henderson, who rolled her ankle badly and missed two full games plus all but six minutes of UM’s opening round win over Sac State, played through the pain, scoring 11 points and grabbing nine rebounds as UM won the battle of the boards, 41-32.
“They are great shooters, their 3-point game is impressive but they also had a lot of wide open 3s we were giving them,” said Johnston, who finished with a game-high 23 points to go with six rebounds and six assists. “It’s a lot easier to knock it down when you are wide open. That really hurt us.”
But Northern Colorado’s ability to stretch the floor and never get flustered ensured the Bears never trailed. UNC dished out 14 assists on 22 made baskets and turned the ball over just nine times.
Smith scored 21 points despite shooting 5-of-18 from the floor to go with five rebounds and five assists, coming out of the game for less than a minute. Despite re-aggravating her left knee that she suffered a torn ACL in two years ago, Scott played all but one minute as well, scoring 16 points and grabbing seven rebounds despite hitting the floor at least a dozen times in the physical affair.
“There really wasn’t a decision, I was going to play no matter what but thankfull, it wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been and I was about to get two weeks off, which was actually pretty good because I could rest my legs a little bit,” Scott said. “I feel pretty good. I got a brace and I’m feeling back to 100 percent.”
The league champs missed eight of their final nine shots and did not made a shot the final 4:44 of the game but sunk 22-of-25 free throws, including 9-of-10 in the fourth quarter to secure a spot in the semifinals.
Montana’s season ends after a roller-coaster ride in Schweyen’s second year at the helm for her alma mater. UM started 0-4 then won seven of nine. UM started 7-2 in Big Sky play, the lone losses at Northern Colorado and at rival Montana State. The Lady Griz bounced back from the loss in Bozeman to sweep Southern Utha and Northern Arizona and push UNC to the brink in Missoula in a 64-58 loss.
But star freshman Sophia Stiles tore her ACL in the loss to Northern Colorado, the next in a line of devastating injuries that derailed UM’s hopes. With seniors Kayleigh Valley and Alicia Sims watching from the bench for the duration of the season after suffering preseason tore knee ligaments, Montana lost six of seven after Stiles went down.
UM rallied for the first Big Sky Tournament win of Schweyen’s tenure only to fall short against a Bears team that has now won 24 games. The Lady Griz lose just senior Mikayla Isaak from a talented core that has now played together for two full years.
“I don’t know what it is about them,” Schweyen said. “They always believe they can get it done and no deficit ever seems to be too much for these guys. The whole second half of conference after losing Sophia, one by one we kept going down and this whole second half of th season, it felt like we were bringing a gun to a knife fight.
“But somehow, someway, these guys manage dto fight their way out of it the whole time. To do what we did this season, I’m incredibly proud.”
Northern Colorado will have to get past the winner of Wednesday’s second quarterfinal matchup between No. 4 Weber State and fifth-seeded Idaho State. UNC swept Idaho State during the regular season but had more trouble with Weber. The Wildcats handed UNC its first Big Sky loss, 82-73 in Ogden and Northern Colorado needed a Smith buzzer-beater at the overtime horn to beat Weber State in Ogden.
“Hard matchups, different matchups. The styles they play are very different. But at this point, we can’t change who we are,” Ethridge said. “We need to be good at adjusting to what teams do and I think we are in a really good spot. I think we are playing better than we’ve played all year. I think these players are in the right frame of mind.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.