RENO, Nevada — Shannon Schweyen has been a part of as many wins in the conference tournament as anyone in the Big Sky Conference.
On Monday in Reno, Schweyen’s Lady Griz helped the second-year head coach notch her first postseason win at the helm for her alma mater.
The No. 8 Lady Griz settled in against No. 9 Sacramento State’s full court trap, point guard McKenzie Johnston broke the Hornets’ press found the soft spots in Sac State’s zone and Montana moved into the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Tournament here with 87-80 win in the opening game of the Big Sky Tournament on Monday afternoon at the Reno Events Center.
“It’s a great feeling,” Schweyen said. “I can’t say how proud I am of what these girls have accomplished. Literally a third of our team is on the bench (with injuries). This group has just been unbelievable so to win is a good feeling. I have a lot of faith in what this group can do.”
Johnston scored a career-high 28 points and did not commit a turnover against Sac’s swarming style until the final minute of the game. She penetrated, isolated and even scored in the post when the Hornets put a smaller defender on her. Her point total surpassed the 26 points she scored in a comeback win over Northern Arizona earlier this season.
“We were more aggressive this time,’ Johnston said. “Their press in the past, we have kind of been back on our heels. This game, we were more aggressive getting it past half court and usually we had numbers.
“If you break it, you hope that your girl is behind you so you usually have numbers so you can take it all the way to the hole or someone else will be open.”
The Big Sky’s all-conference honors came out on Sunday. No Lady Griz made the list, although many around the league and most close to the Montana program thought Johnston deserved recognition. Monday, she showed why.
“I know what kind of competitor Kenzie is and I really felt that she deserved to be first, second or third teamer and I told her before the game that I would be curious to see how she responds,” Schweyen said. “I think she went out there today and showed what kind of competitor she is. That was fuel for the fire.”
Schweyen, the first and only first-team All-American in the history of the conference as a player in the early 1990s at Montana, led Montana to four NCAA Tournaments in her standout career that included two Big Sky MVPs and three Big Sky Tournament MVPs. Widely considered the greatest player in the history of the league, the former Shannon Cate transitioned into coaching for UM legend Robin Selvig immediately after her career ended in 1992.
As an assistant, Schweyen was a part of 11 Big Sky Tournament championship teams, most of which were won at Dahlberg Arena, Montana’s home court.
Since the Big Sky Tournament moved to Reno, the league postseason has not been as kind to the Lady Griz. Montana beat last-place Southern Utah before falling in the quarterfinals to North Dakota in Selvig’s 38th and final season at the helm.
Schweyen took over, following in the footsteps of a man who won 865 games, 20 league Coach of the Year honors, 22 regular-season championships and went to the NCAA Tournament 21 times. Schweyen’s first season was riddled with injuries as preseason Big Sky MVP Kayleigh Valley tore her ACL before the season began, preceding a similar injury for All-Big Sky post Alicia Sims. Montana won just seven games and lost in the first round in Reno.
This year’s Lady Griz have experienced hard luck again — Valley and Sims both suffered season-ending injuries in the preseason again and junior post Jace Henderson roller her ankle less than a week before the tournament, costing her the last three games — but Montana’s youth has matured and the team has doubled its win total from Schweyen’s first season.
On Monday, Montana struggled early, missing 14 of its first 16 shots against Sac State’s zone. But the Lady Griz hit their final four shots of the first quarter and kept pace with the frantic Hornets after that thanks to the steady Johnston.
The Lady Griz made 14 of 25 shots to close the first half with a 39-38 lead. In the second half, despite the absence of Henderson, UM used similar patience and poise against Sac State head coach Bunky Harkleroad’s the high-pressure style to pull away.
“Being here in Reno, everyone is going to have a little bit of jitters and they are a fast-paced team and usually we like to get into our offense and slow it down so I think the first half, we were playing into what they wanted,” Johnston said. “Once we settled in, our shots were more open shots instead of rushing.”
Sac State senior Maranne Johnson did her best to kept the Hornets in the game in the second half. Her second 3-pointer of the third quarter — the explosive guard scored nine points in the frame — gave Sac its first lead of the second half, 54-52. Montana answered with a 9-1 run in the final 96 seconds of the third quarter to take a 61-55 lead into the final frame.
The Lady Griz off-set the Hornets’ penchant for casting 3-pointers — Harkleroad wants hits team to shoot 50 3s a game — by feeding reserve post Caitlin Lonergan and letting Johnston isolate off the dribble. UM scored 56 points in the paint, including 18 by Lonergan, a former volleyball Big Sky Freshman of the Year at Montana State in her first year playing in Missoula. The 6-foot-2 post finished 9-of-12 from the floor and grabbed eight rebounds. “I feel like every one of our posts has the capability to give what Jace gives to our team even though she’s definitely so helpful, outgoing, pumps up our team,” Lonergan said. “I feel like everyone in that position has the ability to fill her spot.”
Johnson finished the game with 30 points, giving her 1,627 points in her decorated Sac State career, the third-most in school history and one of the top 20 totals in Big Sky annals. The two-time all-conference selection finishes her career with 324 steals, the third-most in the history of the Big Sky.
“It’s been an unbelievable experience,” Johnson said.. “I met a fine group of ladies and the coaching staff was amazing. It sucks to go down like this but it was amazing and I will never forget playing for Sac State.”
Montana moves on to play top-seeded Northern Colorado, the outright regular-season champions. UNC won both match-ups between the two teams during a 23-win regular-season. Tip is at 1:05 p.m. MST on Wednesday.
“They are hard to guard,” Schweyen said. “It will be very similar to Sac as far as closing people out and guarding on the perimeter. I think this group is going to come off this win in a positive way and give (Northern Colorado) all they can handle on Wednesday.
Sacramento State finishes its season 7-23 overall.
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.