The best player in the Big Sky Conference walked confidently around the room on Wednesday evening at her team’s annual postseason banquet at The Depot. It showed just how far she’s come.
Kayleigh Valley wore no brace on the knee she injured at practice in October, a season-ending setback that became a season-long storyline to be lamented as often as necessary to get through a challenging winter. No ugly zipper scar was to be seen.
For the most part, a first-time visitor would have been hard-pressed to pick out the player who lost what was predicted to be an MVP season.
On Wednesday night, Valley looked like she could have suited up and scored 30 without breaking a sweat.
Alycia Sims was there as well, a sufferer of the same injury, the same fate, but six weeks after Valley. She, too, looked like she was ready to forget about the pain of injury, the endless recovery, and begin anew.
The two players who likely would have been All-Big Sky last winter made it easy to look ahead to October, when Montana will return to being Montana, with the Lady Griz taking their traditional spot near the top of the league standings.
But that would give closure too quickly to the season past, five months filled with growing pains and more losses than anyone associated with Lady Griz basketball has ever experienced.
Wednesday evening provided an opportunity to look back, to take a big-picture view of everything that had happened, from the hopes of a Big Sky title one month to just trying to function in a competitive environment the next. And everything that followed.
The easy thing would be to view the season singularly, with a beginning and an end, hopefully never having to be repeated. And that’s fine, but that would be a disservice to those who invested the sweat equity and discount what happened in those five months and what it is going to mean for the future.
With almost all the players who made it through the season back next year, and with Valley and Sims ready to join them, last winter was hardly a lost or forgotten effort. It was a crash course in trial by fire, the ultimate learn-as-you-go experience. In the end, maybe it was a springboard for what’s to come.
“I’m extremely excited when I think about the future and the valuable minutes these kids got this year,” said first-year coach Shannon Schweyen, whose top five scorers were either true or redshirt freshmen. The team’s top seven scorers were underclassmen.
“The pressure that they were faced with, of not just going out there and playing and getting better, but the pressure of trying to win ball games and not get down on themselves, just made them older than they should be. They matured faster than most of our freshmen have ever had to.”
Valley was injured in early October, less than a week into the start of preseason practices. In the season opener in mid-November, against Great Falls, Montana won the game but lost Sims for the season early in the third quarter.
Just days later, in game two, an unfair matchup against mid-major power South Dakota State in Iowa City. Starting four true or redshirt freshman against an NCAA tournament team loaded with returners, Montana had no chance. The Lady Griz lost to the Jackrabbits 84-43. And the season was underway.
The losses mounted — Montana ended January with a record of 3-18 — but as the calendar flipped to February, the Lady Griz turned a new page as well.
The month opened with an overtime loss to Montana State, the Big Sky’s tournament champion, when Montana’s shallowness showed through in letting an eight-point lead late in regulation slip away.
From that point on, the Lady Griz closed the regular season winning four of their last seven games, and at times looked impressive doing so, defeating Weber State, 71-46, and Idaho State, 68-53, on the final week at Dahlberg Arena, in front of a home base that remained faithful.
“We talked all the time about not reading too much into what the media or people were saying about our record,” said Schweyen. “Our goal was to set little goals and try to get better every game and be playing our best at the end of the season.
“And we did get better as the season went along. We were playing our best basketball at the end of the year, and that’s what you want your team to be doing. We saw some tremendous growth.”
It’s still months away, but the payoff for everything the Lady Griz endured last season — and Schweyen dealt with in her first season of not just trying to replace the irreplaceable but making her own way as a head coach — will arrive next fall.
Valley and Sims, already looking season-ready on Wednesday, will be even stronger, more eager, more motivated to go out on top. And players who were freshmen last winter will go into October feeling like veterans. And that’s not possible without the trials endured last winter.
“When all that youth we relied on last year gets coupled with some experienced players who will be our leaders both offensively and defensively, I’m excited to see how all the pieces are going to fit together,” said Schweyen, who used Wednesday’s banquet to hand out the program’s annual awards.
Redshirt freshman point guard McKenzie Johnston became the first player in program history to sweep two awards — the Mary Louise Pope Zimmerman Most Valuable Player and the Theresa Rhoads Award for best exemplifying Lady Griz basketball — that, combined, reveal all you need to know about her.
Mekayla Isaak and Sierra Anderson shared the Julie Deming Outstanding Defensive Player award, and Jace Henderson was voted the Shannon Green Most Inspirational Player, Hailey Nicholson the Grace Geil Most Improved Player.
In a season of improvement, from the team to the new coaching staff to individual players, it was Nicholson who was most emblematic of the Lady Griz in 2016-17. She had the skills. She just lacked the confidence and the experience. And she was asked to do more than she was prepared to do.
Instead of redshirting, which would have been the likely scenario had a healthy Valley and Sims been taking up the lion’s share of the minutes, Nicholson made her first career start against South Dakota State, the first of 16 starts for the season.
“It’s normal for a freshman to come in timid and scared at this level of competition, and Hailey showed that,” said assistant coach Sonya Stokken. “But as time went on, she got so much stronger. She came such a long way.”
Nicholson’s breakthrough game, predicted by Schweyen after putting a challenge to her freshman that week in practice, came at home against Idaho in early January. She scored 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting, with most of the baskets coming on surprisingly aggressive takes to the basket.
About the only thing that slowed Nicholson down that day was perhaps a feeling that she was taking more shots than she deserved or warranted, a freshman learning her way and that sometimes being selfish is the most team thing she can do.
Her performances were still up and down, but by February trending mainly upward. She scored 10 or more points in four of the final seven games she played (she missed her lone game of the season at Portland State after suffering a concussion at Sacramento State two days prior).
“What changed for Hailey was all about confidence and getting more comfortable with our system and our plays,” said Stokken. “Not so much thinking but just doing out on the court.
“Where she started and where she finished was the difference in her comfort level within the program.”
The effervescent Henderson, who began her collegiate career as a member of the Montana volleyball team before spending the last two years as a Lady Griz, was voted by her teammates as the Shannon Green Most Inspirational Player.
And here’s why in a nutshell: whether she plays 20 minutes in a game or two, her attitude does not change, nor does her work rate at the following day’s practice. In an era of me, me and then me some more, Henderson is a coach’s dream.
“To be recognized as your team’s most inspirational player is a great compliment,” said assistant coach Mike Petrino, “because you are being recognized for your efforts on and off the floor.
“Jace demonstrates her work ethic and attitude every day. She has the courage to say things that need to be said, and she has the support of all her teammates because of her work ethic and attitude.”
Everything about Henderson reflects her love of team, of having the chance to compete, of being there for her teammates, from leading scorer to final sub, of just being able to have the opportunity she has. It’s beautiful to see and almost impossible to replicate or coach.
“She just has that great personality where she can relate to everybody, not just some of her teammates,” Petrino added. “Who you see is who she is, and that’s a wonderful teammate. I was really excited to see her teammates voted for her for this award. There is no one more deserving.”
Montana frequently leads the Big Sky Conference in one or more defensive statistics and is just as often the team no opposing coach enjoys preparing for. And that makes winning the program’s Julie Deming Outstanding Defensive Player award extra meaningful.
This year’s award was split between someone who does her work on the perimeter — Anderson, a guard — and someone who gets it done from the paint to 3-point line — Isaak, a forward. One provided the first line of defense, the other the last.
“Sierra’s ball pressure, especially in the full court and creating havoc with opposing guards, was instrumental to us defensively to kind of set the tone to get us started,” said assistant coach Eric Hays. “And then Mekayla was kind of the back line.”
For as much as Montana struggled offensively throughout most of the season — the Lady Griz ranked last in the Big Sky by a wide margin in both scoring and field goal percentage — it was its work on the defensive end that allowed it to be competitive.
Montana held six of its 11 nonconference opponents — and those games came in November and December, when the Lady Griz were at their greenest — to 60 or fewer points.
Anderson played in 29 of 30 games, missing one because of a broken nose (probably out of an opponent’s frustration — and elbow — for being defended more aggressively than she wanted). Isaak led the team in blocked shots, with 26, charges taken and in communication.
“She is our best communicator defensively, and that’s important, because defense is all about communication,” added Hays. “She is good at switching screens, good at anticipating where teams like entering the basketball and good at help defense.”
Johnston, who plays harder than most everyone else on the court, something that will be her trademark the next three years, was last season’s tragic hero, doomed from the start.
Because being a part-time starting point guard as a redshirt freshman is hard enough. But doing it in the situation Montana was forced to face after both Valley and Sims went down? Unfair to the Nth degree.
The frustration of trying to direct an offense that oftentimes struggled to score — or just function as practiced — showed from time to time in a player who had never really experienced losing in her life. But it just made her play that much harder, care that much more deeply, and turned her into a fan favorite.
Johnston split starting point-guard duties with Anderson until mid-January, when Schweyen and staff finally went all in on Johnston. It came with some risk, because their now full-time point guard was 3 for 35 from 3-point range at the time, and that doesn’t do a sputtering offense any good.
But it was what Johnston needed.
“When we finally made her the starting point guard and quit splitting time, it was a vote of confidence for McKenzie, and she thrived from that point on,” said Schweyen. “I think it helped her a ton, knowing we believed in her.”
Johnston didn’t have the body of work to justify it, nor did Montana have the record, but the way she played in February had people believing she could be the Big Sky Freshman of the Year if not an All-Big Sky selection. The latter will have to wait, but it will come her way in due time, as could an MVP.
Her month of February was a tour de force. The 17-point game against Montana State that announced her arrival as a player. The 19-point, 10-rebound, six-assist game five days later against Southern Utah as Montana snapped a 13-game losing streak.
Both warm-up acts for her performance two days later against Northern Arizona, when she went 11 for 13, a perfect 3 for 3 from 3-point range, to score 26 points in a home win over the Lumberjacks and earn Big Sky Player of the Week honors.
Over the season’s final 10 games, Johnston shot better than 40 percent from 3-point range, which benefitted everyone. After surpassing 60 points just twice in its first 19 games against Division I opponents, Montana averaged more than 61 its final nine games of the season.
The Lady Griz were a different team, mostly because Johnston had become a different player, now with the confidence to direct, to score, to lead, to carry if she had to.
“McKenzie just became a weapon,” said Schweyen. “She started scoring and shooting the ball so much better. She flirted with some triple-doubles, and you just don’t see that very often from a freshman point guard.
“As she understood her role of when to try to make something happen and when to run offense, she just got better and better.”
Johnston finished second in scoring to Taylor Goligoski, led the team in assists (and had an acceptable 1.3 assist-to-turnover ratio considering how many potential assists went from makeable to missed shots) and surprisingly grabbed more rebounds than anyone else on the team, with 149.
At 5-foot-7, that can only happen with court savvy and awareness. Johnston is exceptional at seeing and reading and sensing things on the court, and that headiness stands out. When so many players are reacting, she’s anticipating, moving a split second before anyone else in the right direction.
“Midway through the year it was clear she was one of our best offensive rebounders, and it’s not very often you give your point guard the green light to go hit the boards, but that was something we started doing with her because she was so effective at reading where the ball was going to go,” said Schweyen.
And so Wednesday’s banquet officially put the 2016-17 season in the rearview mirror and shined a spotlight on what’s ahead, and it looks good. Really good.
Valley, voted the program’s Most Improved Player as a sophomore, its Most Valuable Player as a junior, wasn’t an award winner on Wednesday, but she knows that all those who were will be back next season. And she will be as well, ready for a swan song delayed.
She can’t wait. Can you?