The effort is there. The depth off the bench is there. The rebounding is there. The crowd support is still there. The defense is mostly there. But offensive execution and scoring continue to hold down the Lady Griz, who lost their sixth consecutive game on Saturday.
The Lady Griz shot 34.5 percent and turned the ball over 20 times to fall to Eastern Washington 60-46 at Dahlberg Arena in a game that had all the elements in place to produce a tight game that went down to the wire.
But when it was a five-point game midway through the third quarter, Montana’s offensive struggles returned. The Lady Griz closed the period with four turnovers and 1-for-4 shooting, and the Eagles finished on a 12-2 run to take a 15-point lead into the fourth quarter. And that was it.
“I was hoping we could make some buckets and get the crowd into it a little bit. Unfortunately we have those periods when we go a long time without scoring. Then we had some turnovers that turn into easy ones for them,” said UM coach Shannon Schweyen.
The Lady Griz have been outscored by 101 points in the first quarter this season, and Saturday added to that discrepancy. Eastern Washington jumped out to leads of 6-0 and 16-4, and led 24-12 at the first break after shooting 52.6 percent in the game’s first 10 minutes.
“We got off to a bad start tonight,” said Schweyen. “The girls just weren’t focused. We gave up some easy stuff early.
“But we competed. To come back and cut it to five in the third quarter was good for us. That’s a team that beat Idaho and took Montana State to the wire. To be in it in the third quarter after a rough start, I’m proud of them for the effort.”
Montana’s big chance to earn its first Division I victory, or at least compete for it, since before Thanksgiving came early in the third quarter. Eastern Washington came out cold, but the Lady Griz were unable to take advantage.
The Lady Griz struggled for most of the game to get open looks even deep into the shot clock against a pressing Eagles defense and were rarely able them pay for that aggressiveness.
That was magnified in the third quarter when a potentially tight game turned into a one-sided victory.
“They pressed us a little bit. We haven’t had people go out there and pressure us like that on the perimeter,” said Schweyen. “I think we’re going to get better from that.
“We had a lot of series where I didn’t feel we took a good shot, and that was if we didn’t turn it over. They had no consequence for playing us the way they did.”
At the other end, Eastern Washington got what it needed at close range.
The Eagles scored all 16 of their points in the third quarter in the paint and 48 of their 60 for the game. Or 48 of 54 when EWU’s six made free throws are subtracted.
In Thursday’s loss to Idaho, when the Vandals hit 14 3-pointers in their 86-59 win, it was the deep shot that hurt Montana. On Saturday the damage came from closer range.
“We talked about defending the three better than we did in the Idaho game, and I thought we did,” said Schweyen. “But then we gave up a lot of points in the paint.”
Fifth-year senior guard Tisha Phillips led both teams with 20 points. She went 9 for 12 and led the close-range scoring.
“She cut down there a lot and beat us on the block,” said Schweyen. “She’s bigger than Sierra (Anderson) or McKenzie. She made some good cuts and finished her chances around the basket.”
Anderson brought Montana within nine, 53-44, midway through the fourth quarter, and Gabi Harrington could have made it a seven-point game, but instead she made a play that is symbolic of the Lady Griz in early January. Playing hard but not quite there yet.
With just over two minutes remaining, she overplayed an entry pass to the wing and stole it cleanly. Racing to the other end, she dribbled the ball off her foot and out of bounds as she approached the basket for an uncontested layup. It was exciting and excruciating, all in one play.
“I looked at (assistant coach Sonya Stokken) and said, ‘That’s us,’ ” said Schweyen.
Harrington led Montana with 12 points off the bench on a day when the reserves outscored the starters, two of whom failed to produce a single point, 35-11. The players off the bench shot 53.8 percent, with Jace Henderson going 3 for 3, Rachel Staudacher 3 for 4.
Staudacher matched her season high with seven points and did the little things that earned Schweyen’s praise postgame.
“I was proud of Rachel today,” Schweyen said. “She came in and took a couple of charges, and she made some baskets and got some big boards.
“She played great, and that was encouraging to see. It’s been kind of a search to see who is going to do something.”
Montana will play at Big Sky Conference leader Northern Colorado (12-3, 4-0 BSC) on Thursday. The Bears remained unbeaten in league with a 69-66 road win at Northern Arizona on Saturday.