BOISE, Idaho — In a league where only a few of the top teams rely on a collection of veterans, the Lady Griz turned to their senior trio to help their season survive.
Like has been the case so often over the last four seasons under head coach Shannon Schweyen, Montana came up short Tuesday at the Big Sky Conference tournament here.
UM senior post Emma Stockholm scored 11 points in the first 12 minutes to stake Montana to an early 23-16 lead. Senior guard Taylor Goligoski buried a clutch 3-pointer to keep the Lady Griz live with one minute, 49 seconds left as UM tried to climb back against Northern Arizona. She also hit a pair of free throws to cut the NAU lead to two points with 12 seconds left.
And All-Big Sky point guard McKenzie Johnston left it all on the court like she has done dozens of times during her individually outstanding career, playing a full 40 minutes and scoring eight of her team-high 18 points in the final 11 minutes of the game.
Northern Arizona sophomore Nina Radford missed the second of two free throws, leaving the door open for one last gasp for Montana. Schweyen called a timeout and drew up a play that UM executed, leading to an open look for Stockholm from the corner. But the 3-point attempt hit the front of the rim before NAU secured a rebound to stamp an upset of much greater magnitude than the pre-game tournament seeding would indicate.
The fifth-seeded Lumberjacks earned a 68-65 win to move into the semifinals of the Big Sky Tournament for the first time since 2007. Under the direction of third-year head coach Loree Payne, who played high school hoops in Havre, Montana, Northern Arizona remains alive for the second NCAA Tournament berth in school history.
“It’s been super special and for this game, we just prepared, stayed composed and we still have one goal in mind: to make it to the championship,” said Lauren Orndoff, the only senior in NAU’s starting lineup.
And the Lady Griz are left to wonder what could have been and what might come next. A team that advanced to the NCAA Tournament 21 times in 38 seasons under Robin Selvig finishes the year with two straight losses to cap a 17-13 record. Schweyen’s teams have won just one tournament game in four seasons since the league moved its postseason to a neutral site.
“I didn’t feel like it was real once I heard the (final buzzer)” Johnston said as tears welled up in her eyes. “I was in shock that our season is done. Going into that, I had all the confidence in that shot and this game. It was a great play we drew up and we had an open shot. My heart dropped for sure and I wasn’t ready to be done.
“I think about how much I’ve grown since being here with Shannon as well. We have grown together. What we have been able to do, our freshman year wasn’t very good at all but we stayed positive and kept working for the future and we kept getting better every year. I think that’s something to be proud of because a lot of teams don’t keep growing like that.”
Entering an off-season with no contract in place for Schweyen means the future of Montana women’s basketball is undefined. Figuring out how to replace Johnston, Stockholm and Goligoski is one thing. Figuring out how to regain the glory of what was one of the most successful mid-major college basketball programs in the country is a completely different challenge.
“These seniors have been really special to me because they have been extremely supportive of me through some tough times, not just starting as a head coach but the injuries we had to such key players and good friends of theirs,” Schweyen said. “They kept me going every time something like that happened. I would get a text from them, a message from them encouraging me that we were going to get through it, do it together. They are an incredible group of young ladies to be around.
“Every year, you think how are you ever going to replace these kids and everybody goes through it. You lose kids that have been a part of what you do and somebody always seems to step into that role. When they get the chance, they embrace it. That’s what coaching is all about. Every year is a new puzzle with new pieces and I think w have some great kids that will step up.”
Montana looked like a team with something to prove during the first quarter against a team UM swept during the regular season. Junior Sophia Stiles made four of her first five shots, including a bucket with 52 seconds left in the first frame to give UM a 19-11 lead. The Lady Griz would never lead by more than eight.
NAU strung together an 8-0 run to end the half and enter the break with a 28-27 lead. Northern Arizona sophomore Regan Schenck scored all six of her points during the spurt. Jaycee Bailey hit a 3-pointer to open the second half and spark another 8-0 run that gave NAU a 36-27 lead.
“We had a tendency this season to start slow out of the gate in the third quarter so we challenged them and reminded them that at halftime,” Payne said. “We always have a goal to make the other coach call a timeout on that first three minutes of the second half. We wanted to make sure to get scores, stops on multiple possessions and having success back to back. We did that in the third quarter.”
The Lady Griz missed 15 of 16 shots during the 16-0 NAU run before a Johnston bucket with 7:27 left in the third. Montana shot just 37 percent for the game, including 2-of-14 from beyond the arc.
“You have to get somebody to get a hot hand and our bench had trouble giving us an edge today,” Schweyen said. “We were searching for somebody to have that spark.”
Even with the shooting struggles, the Lady Griz refused to go away. Stockholm buried a long 2-pointer as time expired in the third quarter to shave the gap to 45-41. Goligoski, a Hamilton native and former two-time Montana Gatorade Player of the Year, nailed a jump shot to begin the fourth quarter to cut the lead to two points.
The score was stuck at 50-49 in favor of NAU for nearly two minutes and Montana cut the lead to two points or less five times in the fourth quarter. But UM could never tie the game or take the lead as Northern Arizona Orndoff hit big shots when her team needed them, scoring seven of her team-high 17 points in the fourth quarter.
“Every time we would try to make a run, they would come down and hit a 3,” Schweyen said. “It got away from us a little bit and we lost some shooters and they capitalized on opportunities. I thought we did a heck of a job playing back into it, taking it possession by possession, did everything we asked of them. We got our top 3-point shooter a shot to tie it and it just didn’t go in.”
The victory moves NAU into the semifinals where the ‘Jacks will face top-seeded Montana State. The Bobcats survived an upset bid before posting a 67-62 win over Northern Colorado in the first quarterfinal on Tuesday.
NAU lost twice to Montana State as the Bobcats rolled to a 19-1 league record, setting the Big Sky record for conference victories in the process. But NAU held a 16-point lead late in the third quarter in Bozeman the final weekend of February before MSU rallied for a 73-71 win on Senior Day.
“I think it’s going to be fun,” said NAU junior Khiarica Rasheed, the league’s leading scorer who finished with 14 points Tuesday. “We are ready to go out and win.”
Montana’s season ends after an overtime loss at Southern Utah last week and Tuesday’s loss in the quarterfinals. This week marked the first time UM has earned a first-round bye under Schweyen. It also makes the third time in four years UM’s postseason has ended after one game.
Schweyen received a one-year contract renewal before the season. A decision on her future has not been made. The former All-American player has a career record of 52-69 in her head coaching career, including a 34-42 mark against Big Sky competition and a 1-4 mark at the Big Sky Tournament. She will be inducted into the Big Sky Hall of Fame in the league’s inaugural class on Saturday.
“We wanted this thing and we knew where we wanted to go together as a group,” Schweyen said as she fought back her emotions. “They may not have been able to accomplish what some other Lady Griz teams have but they are champions to me and champions in my heart.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.