Big Sky Conference

UNC edges Lady Griz in crucial Big Sky tilt

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A half of strong defense wasn’t enough for the Montana Lady Griz Thursday night at the Adams Center, as they surrendered 41 second-half points to Northern Colorado in a costly 64-58 loss.

The Bears’ Savannah Smith took over in the second half, canning a 3-pointer with 2:20 left in the third quarter to give Northern Colorado (15-6, 7-3) a 41-39 lead, Northern’s first since the first minute of the game.

She pulled up and hit another 3 not even a minute later for a 44-41 lead. The preseason Big Sky favorites maintained from there.

“That’s why Smith is as good as she is,” Lady Griz coach Shannon Schweyen said of Northern Colorado’s junior All-Big Sky point guard. “She can get cooking. … We’ve seen her do it, and she flat out did it.”

Northern Colorado guard Savannah Smith drives on Montana guard Sophia Stiles/by Jason Bacaj

Montana (11-10, 7-3) took one last lead early in the fourth quarter, but Tiarna Clarke answered right back with a jumper for the Bears. Just a minute after that, Smith swished another 3-pointer to give the Bears their largest lead at 51-45. Montana couldn’t answer, losing at Dahlberg Arena for the first time in league play.

Smith, who entered the game averaging 16.9 points, had just two points at halftime but finished with a game-high 20 as the Bears leapfrogged Montana into second place in the Big Sky Conference behind Weber State.

The two teams are part of a four-team group at 7-3 that also includes Idaho and Montana State. Weber State posted a 65-50 win over Southern Utah to move to 7-2 in league. MSU posted a 72-56 win over North Dakota in Bozeman on Thursday. Idaho edged Portland State 61-60 to keep pace.

The win also gave Northern Colorado a season sweep over Montana, after they beat the Lady Griz 68-50 in Greeley on Jan. 6.

True freshman Sophia Stiles had 16 for Montana, and sophomore Madi Schoening chipped in 12 and a game-high 10 rebounds.

Montana guard Madi Schoening looks for space vs Northern Colorado/by Brooks Nuanez

Schoening keyed a game-opening 15-6 run for the Lady Griz, putting up seven points in the stretch, but Montana couldn’t score for the last two minutes of the first quarter and Northern Colorado closed the gap to 15-11 after the first period.

Montana’s cold stretch carried over into the second, and seemed to infect Northern Colorado, too.

Plagued by turnovers and poor shooting, neither team scored until there were less than five minutes left in the quarter, when Abby Kain broke the drought with a put-back for the Bears.

Montana’s woes continued until the 3:48 mark of the quarter, when senior Mekayla Isaak cut baseline for a layup and a 17-13 lead.

“It’s really frustrating. … You just try to find a way to get something easy and then hopefully find a way to get a rebound, putback, something like that,” Schweyen said. “And then we had some stretches when we didn’t quite execute offensively, we were a little bit sloppy.”

Isaak’s basket woke Schweyen’s team up a bit, as Jace Henderson scored inside, Stiles hit a 3-pointer and the Lady Griz went into halftime leading 27-23.

Montana held the Bears to just 34.5 percent shooting in the first half after surrendering 68 points in the first meeting between the teams.

“We changed our defensive plan,” Lady Griz sophomore point guard McKenzie Johnston said. “The first time we played them, we were trying to chase their on-ball [screens]. In this game, we were switching them, which seemed to work a lot better.”

Montana guard McKenzie Johnston attempts a shot vs Northern Colorado/by Jason Bacaj

The teams came out for the second half as if determined to erase the poor offensive memories of the first.

Montana made 8-of-16 shots in the third quarter, but Northern, keyed by Smith’s shooting, went 7-of-10 from the field and, after Smith’s second 3, took a 44-43 lead to the fourth.

“They were hitting 3s and got caught up in a hurry,” Schweyen said. “We just had some unfortunate things that led to some really easy baskets for them.”

The Bears then made sure there wouldn’t be a comeback, doing their third quarter one better by finishing an unconscious 7-of-9 from the field in the fourth quarter.

The Lady Griz cut the lead to one point on two separate occasions, but couldn’t get over the hump and Smith, fittingly, closed out the game at the free throw line.

Montana forward Mekayla Isaak makes a shot vs Northern Colorado/by Jason Bacaj

“Down the stretch, we just couldn’t get anything down,” Schweyen said. “It was just the little things that hurt us. We did a good job on the boards, took decent care of the ball, but just needed some of those shots to go.”

Montana will host North Dakota on Saturday at 2 p.m. The Fighting Hawks are 3-7 in the Big Sky after Thursday’s loss to Montana State.

Northern Colorado will travel to Bozeman Saturday to take on Montana State in another pivotal Big Sky tilt.

Andrew Houghton is a freelance sportswriter living in Missoula. He can be reached at akh243@gmail.com. Photos by Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved. 

About Andrew Houghton

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