In the end, it was a pair of season-long bugaboos, that being slow starts and cold shooting, that did in the Montana women’s basketball team on Monday in the first round of the Big Sky Conference tournament at Reno, Nev.
The Lady Griz (7-23), the No. 11 seed, fell behind by 12 at the half and shot 27.6 percent to fall 63-53 to No. 6 Idaho State despite a spirited second-half effort that brought Montana within six of the Bengals (17-13) three times in the fourth quarter.
Idaho State advances to face No. 3 Northern Colorado on Wednesday in the quarterfinals.
When the teams met on Friday in Missoula, in what would be a 68-53 victory for Montana, it was the Lady Griz who jumped out to a halftime lead. Three nights later, it was the Bengals’ turn.
Idaho State hit six 3-pointers in the first half, those coming from five different players. Coupled with Montana’s 26.9 percent shooting and nine turnovers through the first 20 minutes, the Lady Griz trailed 40-28 at the break.
“They were the aggressor in the first half, and that hurt us. We kind of buried ourselves,” said coach Shannon Schweyen. “They had different kids lighting them from all over the place, and when they do that, they are hard to guard. They have lots of different weapons.”
Montana fell behind 13-6 in the opening six minutes, but a 9-0 run, with scoring from four players, kept the Lady Griz in it early. They would trail 18-15 at the end of the first quarter.
A pair of free throws by Hailey Nicholson, who had eight first-half points, gave Montana a 24-22 lead four minutes into the second quarter. It would be the team’s final lead of the game as Idaho State owned the rest of the period.
The Lady Griz went without a field goal the final seven minutes of the second quarter, while the Bengals were shooting 50 percent for the period. That combination allowed ISU’s lead to balloon to 40-28 at the half.
“We weren’t adjusting to what they were doing and just got clinic-ed,” said Schweyen. “And then we were struggling on the offensive end as well. Our shot selection wasn’t as good as it’s been, and we missed some in transition.”
Montana didn’t win a game all year when trailing at the half, finishing 0-20, but the Lady Griz gave themselves chances on Monday by upping their intensity level on the defensive end.
“We talked at the half that this is a new half and that 12 points isn’t that much,” said Schweyen. “We could do it if we battle one possession at a time, and they went to battle and got right back into the game.”
But 28.1 percent shooting in the second half made the comeback achingly slow, and the Lady Griz were not able to do quite enough to ever make the Bengals truly start to sweat.
Grace Kenyon scored the first four points of the fourth quarter, and that increased Idaho State’s lead to 52-41. Emma Stockholm answered right back with a 3-pointer to make it 52-44.
And that would be the score for nearly six frustrating minutes.
Montana missed seven straight shots before Nicholson’s rebound putback made it 52-46, but by that time less than three minutes remained.
“We made a nice run in the second half and got them on the ropes a little bit, but then we had another drought when we couldn’t score,” said Schweyen, whose team held the Bengals to 12 points through the first 18 minutes of the second half.
“I was proud of the way we made a run in the second half. Our defense was a lot better. It was six points down the stretch, but it was too little too late.”
Montana only had possession once down six in the closing minutes, but Rachel Staudacher‘s shot was long, and Idaho State went 11 for 13 from the line in the fourth quarter to overcome only five made field goals the entire second half.
Nicholson finished with a team-high 14 points and eight rebounds. Goligoski had 13, and Anderson, who had 33 points the final three games of the season off the bench, finished with 10.
McKenzie Johnston burned ISU for 20 points in Friday’s win, which made her the focal point of the Bengals’ defensive effort on Monday. She had just five points on 2-of-10 shooting but still added a season-high 11 rebounds and four assists.
“She hurt them last week, so they made some adjustments and made it tough for Kenzie coming off any kind of on-ball (screen). She wasn’t able to create as much as she’d like to,” said Schweyen.
“She had a tough time getting any shots to go down tonight, but she still had 11 boards and four assists, and she absolutely plays her heart out all the time. You never have to ask for more out of her.”
Isabel Vara De Rey led Idaho State with 18 points, going 10 for 10 from the line. Lindsay Brown added 16 before fouling out.
Despite the loss, Montana closed the year winning four of its last eight after opening the season 3-19, which included a 13-game losing streak. The team’s top five scorers were all redshirt or true freshmen, the top eight scorers were underclassmen.
Watching the entire season from the bench were Kayleigh Valley, who was voted the Big Sky Conference preseason MVP last October, and Alycia Sims, both of whom will return next year as fifth-year seniors to make the Lady Griz a team that should rocket up the standings after finishing 11th this winter.
“I’m proud of the way the team grew this year,” said Schweyen. “From where we started to where we’re at today, it was leaps and bounds. We wanted to be playing some of our best basketball at the end of the season, and we did that, so these girls have a lot to be proud of.
“These girls never gave up and really showed us a lot. This group, with Kayleigh and Alycia coming back, has the potential to do some amazing things next season.”