Northern Colorado used a strong start to build a lead and a late surge to protect it as the Bears defeated Montana 65-46 Thursday night at Bank of Colorado Arena in Greeley to take over sole possession of first place in the Big Sky Conference.
Northern Colorado (13-3, 5-0 BSC) made five of its first nine shots to build a 12-point first-quarter lead and led 34-24 at the half.
The Lady Griz (3-13, 0-5 BSC) cut what was an 18-point lead in the third quarter down to 13 with five minutes remaining in the fourth, but the Bears scored 10 straight points to put the game away.
Montana shot 30.4 percent, its lowest percentage since Dec. 2, and turned the ball over a season-high 21 times.
“Tonight was one of our biggest offensive struggles,” said coach Shannon Schweyen. “They pressure you and do a good job of getting after you, but it was our worst game as far as passing and catching and seeing what was open.
“We just didn’t hit the right people when they were open.”
Montana trailed by 12 points after the first quarter at home last week against both Idaho and Eastern Washington. On Thursday it was 10, 19-9, after the Bears knocked down three 3-pointers in the opening 10 minutes.
The Lady Griz got scoring from six different players in the second quarter — four from Gabi Harrington — and trailed by the same margin, 34-24, at the half.
A 3-pointer by Sierra Anderson, one of only eight Montana has made on 65 attempts through five league games, made it a nine-point game, 36-27, early in the third quarter, but a 6-0 Northern Colorado run built the lead back to 15, and the UNC advantage was 50-33 going into the fourth.
The Bears left the door open, scoring just one point through the first five minutes of the final period, but the Lady Griz couldn’t take advantage. Montana shot 4 for 13 in the quarter and turned it over seven times.
“We had 21 turnovers tonight, and a lot of those were very unforced,” said Schweyen. “We traveled. We stepped out of bounds. We didn’t know where we were on the floor. Just way too many turnovers.
“It’s one of those things where you wished you had a few of those back and had a few extra possessions. We’re not good enough to be giving up possessions like that.”
After Maddie Keast pulled Montana within 13, 51-38, with 5:11 to go, Northern Colorado scored 10 straight points to pull away for good.
“It was a 13-point game with five minutes to go, then we just handed them 10 points,” said Schweyen. “When we got frustrated offensively, we weren’t quite as into it at the other end.
“The girls need to be working harder on the defensive end when things aren’t going well on offense, and I didn’t feel like that necessarily happened tonight.”
Four players scored in double figures for Northern Colorado, which moved into first place in the Big Sky with the win and North Dakota’s 74-71 overtime home loss to Montana State.
Savannah Scott led UNC with 15 points on 5-of-7 shooting. The Bears hit eight 3-pointers and had 19 assists against only 10 turnovers.
McKenzie Johnston totaled 10 points, five rebounds and four assists for Montana, which lost its seventh straight game, its 11th consecutive against Division I opponents.
The team’s leading scorer, Taylor Goligoski, was held to a season-low four points for the second straight game.
“Taylor had a rough one. She had people all over her all night,” said Schweyen. “She has to learn how to do other things when it’s not coming easy for her.”
Montana will play North Dakota (9-7, 4-1 BSC) at 1 p.m. (MT) on Saturday in Grand Forks.
In other Big Sky games Thursday night, Eastern Washington won at home over Idaho State, 58-41, Idaho won at home over Weber State, 95-77, outscoring the Wildcats 78-49 after the first quarter, and Sacramento State won at home over Southern Utah, 81-69.