McKenzie Johnston scored a career-high 26 points and drove to the basket for the game-winning layup with five seconds left to give Montana a 60-59 victory over Northern Arizona on Saturday afternoon at Dahlberg Arena.
It was the second straight win for the Lady Griz (5-19, 2-11 BSC) after snapping a 13-game losing streak with a 64-55 victory over Southern Utah on Thursday night.
First-year coach Shannon Schweyen might have preferred an outcome that came a little more comfortably. After all, her team led by 18 points midway through the third quarter.
But the Lumberjacks (6-18, 2-11 BSC) went on a 14-0 run later in the quarter and four times grabbed the lead in the fourth, forcing Schweyen’s team to make play after play down the stretch, which may have been the best thing for a young team as it enters the final three weeks of the regular season.
“The girls did a great job of hanging in there and not letting this one slip away,” said Schweyen. “They were gritty and determined to make sure this one went in the win column. I’m super proud of them.”
Montana built an 11-point lead in the first quarter and led 36-25 at the half.
Madi Schoening, who finished with 12 points and seven rebounds, put the Lady Griz up 45-27 with a jumper in the paint four minutes into the third quarter.
A basket by Raina Perez, who would score 15 points in the second half, 18 for the game, started NAU’s 14-0 run, which was helped by eight straight misses by Montana.
Johnston ended a nearly six-minute scoring drought for the Lady Griz with a basket at the end of the third quarter, and Schoening opened the scoring in the fourth to put Montana back up eight, 49-41.
Northern Arizona wasn’t done. The Lumberjacks scored nine straight points, making it a 23-4 run over the two quarters, to go up 50-49 on a free throw by Kaleigh Paplow with 7:13 remaining.
Neither team led by more than two points the final seven tense minutes.
Perez and Schoening traded baskets, then Schoening and Paplow, and with 2:02 left, Johnston drove to the basket with a defender on her hip and scored to make it 56-54.
After the teams traded turnovers, Perez put NAU up 57-56 when she hit a 3-pointer with 1:16 remaining.
Schoening missed at the other end, but Rachel Staudacher was in the right place at the right time (remember that) to grab the offensive rebound and extend the possession.
With 36 seconds left, Emma Stockholm, set up in front of the Lady Griz bench, launched a 3-pointer that sailed over the basket. Staudacher grabbed it on the other side of the rim and in one motion scored on a putback to give Montana a 58-57 lead.
“That was absolutely huge,” said Schweyen. “Rachel has been doing such a great job of crashing the offensive boards. It’s not quite how we drew it up, but we’ll take it.”
Olivia Lucero, Northern Arizona’s leading scorer, didn’t waste any time putting NAU back up one. She drove strong to the basket and made it 59-58 with 26 seconds left.
The Lumberjacks had a foul to give and tried to spend it on Johnston, who found herself pinned to the sideline in front of her own bench, but nothing was called, and Johnston just kept dribbling, first to the baseline, then to the basket, where she scored the game-winner.
The final five seconds were, as usual, interminable, with a pair of video reviews.
The condensed version: After Johnston’s basket, Perez missed a 3-pointer. Johnston was fouled with 0.5 seconds left. She missed the first free throw, then intentionally missed the second, but didn’t hit the rim. Following a timeout, NAU inbounded from the frontcourt and Lucero’s shot was off the mark.
“We’ve been bad at missing free throws all year long, and the one time we do try to miss it, it didn’t go right,” joked Schweyen. “But McKenzie made the huge basket earlier to make up for it.”
Johnston went 11 for 13 on Saturday, 3 for 3 from the arc. On the team’s three-game home stand, which began with last Saturday’s overtime loss to Montana State, she averaged 20.7 points on 65.6 percent shooting.
“It was another monster game for McKenzie,” said Schweyen. “She’s just been playing such good basketball. It’s great to see her knock down her outside shots. It makes her so much more of a weapon.”
Lost in the excitement of the dramatic ending was the fact that Montana came out sharp at the start, a change of course for a team that spent the first two-plus months of the season finding itself facing first-quarter deficits.
Montana, with scoring from six different players, went 7 for 13 in the first quarter and led 19-10 at the first break. Just as important, the Lady Griz held the Lumberjacks to 4-for-14 shooting in the first period to set the early tone.
“The girls were dialed in at the start,” said Schweyen. “We’re beginning to play personnel so much better. This is a team we haven’t played yet, so you hope the girls understand who they are and what their strengths and weaknesses are.
“They are getting better and better at that. They are doing the little things that can make a big difference.”
Northern Arizona, which played without Brittani Lusain, the team’s third-leading scorer, was shorthanded, and that made Montana’s work on Lucero, who is averaging more than 15 points per game, even more important.
The Loyola Marymount transfer was held to six points on 3-of-8 shooting.
Perez shot her team back into the game in the second half, and Catelyn Preston, averager of fewer than three points and three rebounds per game, added 13 points and 12 rebounds off the bench, 10 and seven of those coming in the second half.
“Our big focus was Lucero. She had had three straight games scoring 20-plus points, so we wanted to make sure we were up on her,” said Schweyen.
“Preston came in and got it cooking a little bit. She had a stretch when she was single-handedly keeping them in it with rebounds and perimeter shots. But I was proud of the way the girls defended tonight. It was encouraging.”
Staudacher finished with six points and five rebounds, Taylor Goligoski grabbed a team-high eight boards, and Montana will go on the road next week to Sacramento State and Portland State with a two-game winning streak, a head of steam and some newfound tight-game confidence.
“It was fun for these guys to be in a one-possession game where it’s tight and every possession is important,” said Schweyen. “I’m super proud of the way they handled themselves.”