Montana women advance in Big Sky tourney with 87-80 win over Sac State

Montana is on its way to a Wednesday meeting with No. 1 seed Northern Colorado, which defeated the Lady Griz twice in their regular-season matchups. The Bears (23-6), who will go into the quarterfinals on a 10-game winning streak. The teams will tip off at 1 p.m. (MT). (Brooks Nuanez photo via GoGriz.com)

For all the bad news Montana has had to endure this season, maybe the best news to reach the team was when it was announced on Sunday that the coaches of the Big Sky Conference did not collectively view Lady Griz point guard McKenzie Johnston as an all-league player.

Perhaps they would like to reconsider their votes.

Johnston scored a career-high 28 points on 10-of-14 shooting to lead No. 8 Montana to an 87-80 victory over No. 9 Sacramento State on Monday in a first-round game of the Big Sky tournament at the Reno Events Center in Reno, Nev.

“I know what kind of competitor Kenzie is, so I was curious to see how she would respond,” said Shannon Schweyen, who picked up the first postseason win of her career as head coach.

“That was a little fuel to the fire. She went out there today and showed what kind of competitor she is. I’m proud of the way she responded.”

Caitlin Lonergan, playing in her first postseason game, added 18 points off the bench on 9-of-12 shooting, and the Lady Griz (14-16) shot 53.1 percent in the second half to pull away from what had been a one-point game at the half.

With Jace Henderson limited to six minutes due to an ankle injury that forced her to miss a pair of games on the road last week, Montana forged ahead with nine healthy players to improve to 46-12 in 30 appearances at the Big Sky tournament.

“This team is so gritty. I love the way they fight and continue to battle no matter who we lose and who’s not playing,” said Schweyen. “They find a way to do it.

“We’ve had kids playing out of position and out of their comfort zones all season, so it’s a huge tribute to the kind of kids they are. When the chips are down, they buck up and get after it.”

And the chips were down early after the Lady Griz missed 14 of their first 16 shots. But Montana only turned it over three times in the first half and finished with a season-low seven for the game, and that kept the Hornets within reach until the Lady Griz could find their shooting touch.

After spotting the Hornets an early six-point lead, Montana was within one at the end of the first quarter, 15-14, and led 39-38 at the break.

“Everyone is going to have a little bit of jitters here in Reno,” said Johnston, who added four rebounds, four assists and a pair of steals.

“We like to get in our offense and slow it down a little bit, and they are a fast-paced team. The first half we played into what they wanted, but once we settled into things, we weren’t rushing.”

Sacramento State made a dozen 3-pointers, but few of them came in bunches, which can lead to the kind of scoring outburst the Hornets are capable of. And makes them so dangerous.

Maranne Johnson, using a combination of 3-point shooting and strong drives to the basket, scored 30 points, but everyone else was mostly held in check, particularly Hannah Friend, the team’s leading scorer at nearly 18 points per game.

Friend had a quiet 14, going 1 of 10 from the arc.

“Sac State is always a tough opponent to guard because they are so capable of going off and making lots of threes,” said Schweyen. “They are difficult to contain, so we knew it was basically close some people out or go home.

“That was our big focus, to make sure we kept them in front of us and contested their threes.”

The Hornets upped their pressure in the second half, and the Lady Griz handled it with aplomb. Employing a well-executed press break, Montana not only had a season low in turnovers, it scored a season-high 11 fast-break points.

The last time Montana faced Sacramento State, the Lady Griz lost 79-64, turning it over 17 times and scoring zero on the break.

“We were more aggressive this time,” said Johnston, who had a single turnover in 39 minutes of court time. “In the past their press has kind of put us back on our heels.

“We had numbers and were getting a lot of good, open looks. We had a lot of good transition offense.”

And when Montana didn’t have transition, it had Lonergan, who consistently posted up within feet of the basket and asked for the ball. Her teammates were happy to deliver it, as they watched the nervous one settle in and miss just three of her 12 shots to come within one of her season high.

“It’s so exciting to be here, I was pretty nervous going into it,” said Lonergan. “It took a full half to feel comfortable.”

Henderson would finish with two points and three rebounds, but just the fact that she made it onto the court for a few minutes in the second half after sitting off to the side in the first half riding a stationary bike was enough of a boost for her teammates, who put up 48 points over the final 20 minutes.

“We didn’t know until right before tipoff what we were going to do,” said Schweyen. “But even sitting out, she was very inspirational. The girls had a little something to play for.

“I can’t say how proud I am at what these girls have accomplished, with a third of our team on the bench. I have a lot of faith in what this group can do.”

Johnson gave Sacramento State what would be its final lead of the game, 54-52, when she connected on a 3-pointer with 1:36 left in the third quarter. Montana answered by making its final four shots of the period, coming from the hands of four different players.

And while that collective approach may not always result in a bounty of all-conference awards, it has led to 17 tournament titles in the last 29 years, which seems like a favorable tradeoff.

Back-to-back baskets by Lonergan and Johnston early in the fourth quarter pushed the lead to 10, 65-55, and Montana was on its way to a Wednesday meeting with No. 1 seed Northern Colorado, which defeated the Lady Griz twice in their regular-season matchups.

The Bears (23-6), who will go into the quarterfinals on a 10-game winning streak, won 68-50 in Greeley and 64-58 in Missoula. The teams will tip off at 1 p.m. (MT).

That will give Henderson 48 more hours to heal and recover and give her two days to ruminate on this: her team did this for her. They wanted to give her at least one more shot this season playing at full strength, or something close to it.

“She told us she wanted to save herself for Wednesday, so we had to get this win today for her,” said Johnston.