McKenzie Johnston’s plump stat line – 19 points, 10 rebounds, six assists – was matched by the heart she played with, and her teammates followed that lead to pick up a victory on Thursday night at Dahlberg Arena that was a long time coming.
Four freshmen scored in double figures and Montana (4-19, 1-11 BSC) held Southern Utah to 32.3 percent shooting to notch a 64-55 victory that snapped the Lady Griz’ 13-game losing streak and gave them their first Big Sky Conference victory of the season.
“There were some happy tears in the locker room,” said coach Shannon Schweyen. “It was a big relief. They’ve been working hard, so it’s nice to see that hard work pay off.
“They’ve been busting it all season, and we’ve been close in a lot of them, so it was great to finally get that win.”
Madi Schoening went a perfect 3 for 3 from 3-point range, one of which was maybe the shot of the game midway through the fourth quarter that halted the Thunderbirds’ comeback attempt, and finished with 12 points.
Taylor Goligoski also scored 12 points, and Hailey Nicholson finished with 10, while Mekayla Isaak (not a freshman) matched Johnston with 10 rebounds and added three assists and two blocks.
The loss keeps Southern Utah (5-18, 0-12 BSC) winless in league.
“A lot of them have wanted this so bad. It’s kind of the monkey off the back. You go and you go and you go, and finally you say, This is enough,” said Schweyen.
“We’ve battled hard enough and you feel like you’ve done some good things, but you don’t have anything to show for it. It’s nice to finally get something else in the column except an L.”
Montana shot 40.0 percent, its fourth time in five games shooting 40 percent or better, but the Lady Griz were able to build an 18-point lead in the third quarter because of their defense.
Darri Frandsen, SUU’s leading scorer, was held to a quiet eight points on 2-of-9 shooting, and point guard Rebecca Cardenas, who was invited to shoot as much as she wanted by sagging defenders, went 3 for 17.
“The girls did a nice job guarding their personnel the way we talked about,” said Schweyen. “The girls did a really nice job on their point guard. They made it tough for her. They went under a lot of screens and made her try to beat us from the outside. They were smart tonight.”
And ready from the opening tip. And just poised enough to hold off Southern Utah’s late charge.
Montana jumped out to a 13-7 lead through one quarter, holding the Thunderbirds to 2-of-14 shooting in the opening period, and led 24-21 at the half, only its second halftime lead in league this season.
Johnston’s hustle got Montana rolling in the third quarter. The Lady Griz shot 9 for 16 for the period and went up 18, 48-30, on the point guard’s jumper in the paint with 1:50 left.
Her defining play of the night came four minutes earlier, when she missed the second of two free throws and proceeded to outwork everyone for an offensive rebound that wasn’t anywhere near the free throw line.
With Thunderbirds standing and watching near the basket, Johnston snuck in and grabbed the loose ball, got fouled and was sent right back to the line.
Seven of her 10 rebounds came on the offensive end, and she was rewarded for that effort by making 16 trips to the free throw line. She scored 19 points for the game on just nine shots, giving her an efficiency rating of +27, the team’s best of the season and putting her in Kayleigh Valley territory.
“What I loved most about her tonight were the rebounds,” said Schweyen. “She misses a free throw and nobody goes down and gets it, so she goes and gets it and gets fouled on the play.
“She’s relentless on the boards. She just plays her butt off and is playing some great basketball right now.”
Goligoski put Montana up 50-34 early in the fourth quarter, but that comfortable lead vanished in a hurry once Southern Utah put an aggressive full-court press into action.
The Thunderbirds, noticeably energized by the change in pace and momentum, went on an 11-2 run over the next four minutes and cut the lead to 52-45 on a Jessica Richardson basket with 5:41 left.
Enter: Schoening. With the shot clock winding down on Montana’s next possession and the Lady Griz in scramble mode, Isaak got the ball to Schoening, and she calmly splashed it to up the lead back to 10, 55-45.
Southern Utah kept coming and had an open three with 42 seconds left that could have cut a 59-55 lead to just one. Frandsen grabbed the offensive rebound, only to have her shot blocked by Isaak.
Johnston went 2 for 2 from the line at the other end with 31 seconds left, and Montana was on its way to its first win.
“They set some good traps and some good doubles, and they are relentless,” said Schweyen. “They have some good quickness on the perimeter and cause a lot of problems. You’ve got to be strong and organized.
“The girls made some big plays when they needed to, like Madi stepping up and knocking that one down when we were struggling. I’m happy we were able to hold on.”
Montana will host Northern Arizona (6-17, 2-10 BSC) on Saturday at 2 p.m. The Lumberjacks lost 86-69 at Montana State on Thursday.
In other league games, Northern Colorado won at Idaho, 71-67, North Dakota won at Eastern Washington, 75-71, and Idaho State won at home over Portland State, 53-47.