Vandals spoil Lady Griz home-opener, 86-59

GoGriz.com

Montana got a big boost from freshman Hailey Nicholson, who scored a team- and season-high 17 points, but it wasn’t enough Thursday night as the Lady Griz were unable to keep up with the Big Sky Conference’s most explosive offense at Dahlberg Arena.

Idaho hit 14 3-pointers, shot 53.2 percent and turned it over just eight times in an 86-59 victory that gave the Vandals their first win over Montana in Missoula since 1984-85.

Idaho (6-7, 1-1 BSC) led 41-28 at the half, then went 5 for 7 from the arc in the third quarter, 13 for 18 overall for the period, to blow the game open.

“If they get on fire, you’re in trouble,” said UM coach Shannon Schweyen. “You’re a little bit at the whim of hoping they are going to miss some, because they are so good at getting threes.”

The loss only slightly spoiled the emergence of Nicholson, who had the type of aggressive performance her coaches have been begging for.

Nicholson, who made her first five shots and finished 7 for 11, used her athleticism to score in a variety of ways around the basket, her most effective move a smooth reverse layup that most players can’t pull off and even fewer can defend.

“She is capable of having that kind of game on a regular basis,” said Schweyen. “It’s been our joke that we want to make her into a mean redhead. We want to get that sweet girl from Malta thinking mean.

“She showed tonight some of the things she is capable of doing. She is extremely athletic and has nice touch around the basket. She just needs to have the mentality that she’s going to score all the time.”

In what has become a season-long trend, Montana (3-11, 0-3 BSC) fell behind early and trailed 20-8 at the end of the opening quarter.

The Lady Griz got a 3-pointer from freshman Emma Stockholm to open the second quarter, and Montana was within nine, 30-21, after a Nicholson basket in the paint, but back-to-back 3-pointers by Taylor Pierce, who scored a game-high 22 points, sparked the Vandals before the break.

Idaho hit four more 3-pointers in the opening four minutes of the third quarter and closed the period on an 11-0 run to take a 72-42 lead into the fourth quarter.

“They are potent on offense,” Schweyen said. “And when you have one or two inexperienced defenders on the floor, they can expose that.

“We switch a lot, so sometimes we lose track and don’t know who we’re guarding. If you don’t know who your assignment is, by the time you react to it, it’s too late.”

Idaho’s Jon Newlee, who previously coached at Idaho State, picked up his first win over Montana at Dahlberg Arena in 14 tries, and he has senior point guard Karlee Wilson to largely thank for it.

Wilson finished with nine points and nine assists with only one turnover, and was able to sit out the fourth quarter with the outcome already decided, a nice way to start a road trip that concludes on Saturday with an important matchup against Montana State in Bozeman.

“She is a nice point guard,” said Schweyen. “She takes care of it and knows how to find her shooters. She penetrates and knows exactly where they are and does a good job delivering it to them.”

Seven players hit 3-pointers for Idaho, with Pierce going 4 for 8 and Mikayla Ferenz 3 for 7. The Vandals went 14 for 34, two off their season high of 16 they knocked down in a loss to UNLV in Hawaii in early December.

Wilson, at least for one night, will likely haunt the dreams of Montana point guard McKenzie Johnston, so much did she badger the young Lady Griz defensively.

Johnston had just three turnovers in 33 minutes, part of Montana’s 12, their fewest against a Division I opponent since before Thanksgiving, but Wilson made Johnston work to both get the ball up the court and initiate her team’s offense.

“She put a lot of heat on Kenzie, but I thought she did a good job getting us into offense,” said Schweyen, who was without the services of sophomore point guard Sierra Anderson, who missed the game with a broken nose. Johnston grabbed a team-high six rebounds as well.

“Without having Sierra to give Kenzie a break, I thought she hung tough, played hard and competed.”

Taylor Goligoski added 15 point for Montana, which shot 36.7 percent, its best shooting performance against a Division I opponent since hitting 41.8 percent against Incarnate Word on Nov. 23.

Mekayla Isaak, who missed the previous eight games with a broken hand suffered against Utah State on Nov. 27, made her return and finished with three assists and two blocks, both team highs, plus two points and two boards.

Montana will host Eastern Washington (6-7, 1-1 BSC) at 2 p.m. on Saturday. The Eagles lost 88-83 in overtime at Montana State on Thursday night.

In other league games, Northern Colorado stayed hot, winning 83-53 at Southern Utah, and North Dakota remained unbeaten in league, holding off Northern Arizona 80-78 in Flagstaff.