MISSOULA — As Jace Henderson put on a clinic against the best team in the Big Sky Conference, no one would’ve ever known that the precocious Lady Griz senior initially didn’t intend to play basketball after high school.
Once upon a time, Henderson was the two-time defending Montana Gatorade Volleyball Player of the Year, a prized recruit on her way to Missoula to help save the University of Montana’s struggling volleyball program.
Five years later, Henderson has the distinction of being the only senior on a Montana women’s basketball roster riddled with injuries for the third straight season. If heart, hustle, endless enthusiasm and infectious positivity were the only things Henderson brought to the table, her transition to the hardwood would still be considered a successful one.
But the fact is, Henderson has evolved into one of the Big Sky Conference’s most skilled and versatile post players. The Billings Senior product is averaging 11.6 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, the latter the third-best average in the league. She leads the league in field goal percentage at 59.1 percent shooting.
“I always knew Jace had potential to be good but it has been surprising all the areas she has excelled in,” Montana third-year head coach Shannon Schweyen, herself a Billings native, said on Tuesday. “I mean, she is one of the top in the league in assists. Rebounds, field goal percentage, she is in literally every statistical category. To see her game evolve the way it is has been great to see because there has certainly been a lot of hard work behind it.”
Henderson has blossomed from a blue-collar worker to a polished post threat. Now that she demands a double team, she has turned into the best front-court passer in the Big Sky. She is averaging 3.9 assists, the seventh-best average in the league and by far the most among players who roam on the block offensively.
The peak performance of Henderson’s career came on January 19 of this season in Missoula against Idaho, the preseason Big Sky favorites. Henderson had a virtuoso afternoon, converting 13 of her 17 shots from the floor, using an array of post moves reminiscent of a 1980s NBA big man. She nailed five of her seven shots from the foul line and grabbed 12 rebounds for good measure for a UM team with a 12-11 mark.
The game was one of the most iconic of the Schweyen era and one to remember in the rich lineage of Lady Griz basketball. It also was one of eight double-doubles Henderson has notched her senior year. She has finished either a bucket or a rebound shy of four other double-doubles this season.
“Gosh, I expect Montana to look to her every single possession,” said Montana State head coach Tricia Binford as her team prepares to play Henderson and the Lady Griz in Missoula on Saturday afternoon.
“If she was on my team, I’d do the same. Our jobs as coaches is to try to get our best players in situations to be successful and she’s certainly one of them for Montana.”
Since the Montana High School Association first introduced volleyball as a sanctioned sport in 1983, Billings Senior has been the queens of Class AA. The Broncs have claimed 12 titles, all since 1991, including winning back-to-back crowns in 2012 and 2013 with Henderson as the orchestrator of head coach Jeff Carroll’s powerhouse offense.
As a setter, Henderson became the first volleyball standout to earn two Gatorade Player of the Year honors. She notched countless assists for star outside hitter Taylor Mims, who went on to become a first-team All-Pac 12 selection at Washington State. Senior won the title for the third straight season the year after Mims and Henderson graduated.
In 31 seasons under Carroll, the Broncs posted a 726-209 record.
“Billings Senior was a big influence on my mindset,” Henderson said. “I was lucky enough to have a coach that talked not just about winning a game but leadership and how important the mental aspect of things are. We were part of a cool legacy in Montana volleyball and I just really appreciate the lessons I learned at a young age that taught me how to compete.”
After the state volleyball championship, Henderson earned all-state honors in basketball for the third straight year by helping the Lady Broncs to a third-place finish at the state tournament.
Henderson came to Missoula to play for Jerry Wagner, who was let go following the 2014 season. As a true freshman, Henderson played in 15 of the Grizzlies’ 29 matches, starting once. She finished third on the team with 77 assists.
But she had doubts about spending the rest of her time at Montana competing in the sport she had always dominated.
“My senior year of high school, I started to really fall in love again with the game of basketball,” Henderson said. “I had so many doubts if I had made the right decision. I prayed a lot about it and I started to think ‘where do I see myself in the future? What game do I love the most that I am going to be able to put in the most time for?’ I decided for college athletics, I have to give my 100 percent and that’s going to be basketball.”
She remembers hearing stories from her parents, Brian and LynnAnn Henderson, of the battles between Schweyen when she was Shannon Cate and great Bobcat forward Sarah Fowler. Henderson remembers admiring all the great women’s basketball players in the state that came before her. The competitiveness that has always trademarked female athletes from the Treasure State inspired her early on.
“I think it’s this environment that we are not only teaching girls that it’s fun to go win a game but also that it’s fun to compete and it’s fun to invest in a team and have success with people around you,” Henderson said. “Growing up in Montana, you see how much fun it is with the way the community supports you. It’s really a lot bigger of a deal here and I love that.”
So with that thought in mind, Henderson decided to walk on to the Lady Griz, a team with more dogged support than almost any women’s program in the nation.
Schweyen remembers the first time she put Henderson through a workout. An assistant on Robin Selvig’s staff at the time, the former Lady Griz All-American remembers thinking Henderson was “good enough” to be a part of the 15-player roster.
During the 2015-16 season, Henderson played in 22 of 31 games, averaging just six minutes a game off the bench. She scored 25 points and grabbed 22 rebounds total, looking like a major project at best.
Her sophomore year, Henderson averaged 12.6 minutes per game. She scored 2.7 points and grabbed 3.1 rebounds per outing, serving as the team’s inspirational leader but hardly a deadly asset in the paint.
Last season, Henderson began to blossom. She started 26 games, averaging 8.8 points and leading the Lady Griz with 7.2 rebounds per contest, the ninth-best average in the Big Sky.
“There’s so many hours to perfect something and you don’t truly perfect something in a sport,” Henderson said. “It was back to square one at first and that’s hard to do at 18 years old.
“All athletes need to have a sense of confidence, that they can take on anybody. I just looked at it as I was going to give it my all regardless of if I succeeded or not. I was not going to be scared of failure or think that if I don’t start or play this many minutes, I’m not fulfilled as a person. I knew I was going to give it my all.”
Now Henderson is in the stretch run of her swan song season, the only senior on a Lady Griz roster that has had to force a handful of true freshman into action.
“She’s done a great, great job,” Schweyen said. “It’s been a tough road because we had some more upper classmen type kids who were going to be part of this season but little by little, they have dwindled off. She’s just been a very positive kid throughout all the struggles and the good times as well. That’s what you hope you have out of your senior.”
“I’ve loved playing with Jace,” UM junior point guard McKenzie Johnston said. “She’s a great leader by always keeping things positive. She always has a voice no matter the situation. She tries to keep the team together as best she can. You can always go to her if you have an issue. We definitely want to get some more wins for her.”
Henderson now has teammates born in a different century than her even if playing alongside freshmen as a senior is nothing unique. It’s become a source of entertainment for a Lady Griz team navigating a rollercoaster season that has them locked in the middle of the Big Sky pack with a 7-7 league record.
“The girls call me mom all the time and they joke that I go to bed at 8 o’clock,” Henderson said with a laugh. “It’s been fun. I love it. We all joke that it takes me a little bit longer to warm up but it’s been a fun, different experience.”
Under Selvig, the Lady Griz carved out a place as one of the nation’s elite programs, winning more than 800 games and advancing to 21 NCAA Tournaments in 38 seasons. Montana has not had a winning record since Selvig retired, although that could change this season.
Despite all the tumult stemming from the injury plague around her, Henderson has remained one of the most positive and infectious athletes in the UM athletic department. She frequently greets the press corps assembled for countless interviews with a smile and a genuine courtesy that is refreshing.
Whether she is scoring in the lane with a jump hook or ripping a rebound away from an opponent or encouraging one of her younger teammates, Henderson has left a lasting mark on the Lady Griz program.
And leading the Lady Griz has left an indelible mark on her.
“The coolest thing I’ve gotten to experience in sports is watching how investing in people around you makes you a better person,” Henderson said. “Pushing through those obstacles as an athlete for those people around you not only teaches you so much about yourself but shows you how important it is to continue pushing and remembering you are a part of something bigger than yourself. That’s what got me through it and why I value it so much.
“This has meant the world. I have become a better person because of Missoula, because of the Lady Griz, because of the University of Montana and the people that are a part of this place. I can’t thank my family, my friends, my coaches and the community enough because without them, I wouldn’t know so much about who I am at 23.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez and Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved.