In a game with 156 points scored, it was the defense played by Montana that set the early tone as it rolled to an 86-70 victory over Northern Illinois on Saturday afternoon at Dahlberg Arena on the opening day of the 38th Lady Griz Classic presented by Holiday Inn Downtown.
Montana (2-2), which picked up its first Division I victory of the season, limited high-scoring Courtney Woods to just two first half points and used some hot shooting to build leads of 28-10 after the first quarter, 44-27 at the break to set up a matchup against UC Davis in Sunday’s championship game.
The Aggies (3-4) were equally impressive on Saturday, putting up 47 first-half points on their way to an 84-68 victory over Nevada.
Montana and UC Davis will square off at 2 p.m., following Northern Illinois (3-3) and Nevada (1-5) at noon.
“We needed this one. It was good for us,” said coach Shannon Schweyen, whose team had to spend an entire week stewing on last Saturday’s 64-41 home loss to South Dakota. “That’s a good basketball club we faced today, so it was a great win for the Lady Griz.”
Montana scored just 15 points in the first half against the Coyotes. The Lady Griz had that many midway through the first quarter on Saturday and ended up shooting 12 for 19 (.632) in the opening 10 minutes.
Everything was working. Montana went 3 for 4 from 3-point range, had 10 assists on a dozen made field goals and even created some second-chance points, with two Emma Stockholm offensive rebounds turning into her own putback and a Katie Mayhue 3-pointer.
When it was all over, all five of Montana’s starters, who shot 50 percent collectively, were in double figures, with McKenzie Johnston leading the way with 18 points and eight assists, and Jace Henderson approaching triple-double territory, with 16 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.
“To put up 86, I wouldn’t think that was us, but I enjoyed it,” said Schweyen. “It’s fun to score the ball and shoot well and have a lot of people contributing.
“I thought we really had some nice basketball plays, when we turned it and found the open shooter or got out on the break and had some nice transition buckets.”
Giving up 70 points might not suggest a stout defensive effort, but Montana held a team averaging 74 points to just 27 in the first half. Most of that was due to the work the Lady Griz did on Woods.
The 6-foot guard came in averaging 19 points and hinted at her offensive explosiveness with six 30-point scoring games last year. She opened this season by dropping 38 points on Yale.
That player was nowhere to be found in the first half, however. Woods had just two points on 1-of-7 shooting at the break.
“The ladies made it tough for them to get anything easy,” said Schweyen. “I was proud of the effort.”
Montana got it done by maybe conceding some looks from the 3-point line. But the Huskies couldn’t take advantage, going 4 for 27 from the arc for the game.
“There were certain kids we wanted to take outside shots,” added Schweyen. “They knocked a few of those down, but we thought that would be better than giving up things to Woods.”
With the score tied 4-4, Montana hit Northern Illinois with three straight triples in less than a minute — two from Mayhue, one from Taylor Goligoski, who would score 13 points on 4-of-6 shooting from the arc — to quickly go up 13-4.
It was a clinical dissection, as Henderson and Johnston combined for nine assists and no turnovers in the first quarter.
The halftime lead was 44-27, and Montana built its advantage to 20 three times in the third quarter, but the Huskies didn’t go away quietly or easily.
It was Woods, who would finish with 18 hard-earned points, who kept Northern Illinois within reach and some careless turnovers by Montana that made things a little uncomfortable in the fourth quarter.
Northern Illinois would pull within 11 early in the final frame, 67-56, when Montana went more than three minutes without a basket.
The Lady Griz responded with a 13-2 run, the last six points coming on 3-pointers by Jordyn Schweyen and Goligoski, to up the lead to a game-high 22 points, 80-58.
But the Huskies kept coming and forced four turnovers in 37 seconds and converted them into quick points that made it 80-69 before anyone knew what had happened.
“We were a little nonchalant with the ball. We weren’t meeting passes. We weren’t getting organized and that’s part of young kids being out there. They need to learn from it, and they will,” said Schweyen, whose team had only 14 turnovers.
“Other than the last turnovers when they were pressing, I thought we took good care of the ball.”
Stockholm almost had her first career double-double, scoring 12 points and matching her career high with nine rebounds, as Montana out-boarded Northern Illinois 48-37.
Fifteen of those came on the offensive end. The Lady Griz entered the game with 18 offensive rebounds through the first three games. Henderson had five, Stockholm four, including two in the first quarter that helped Montana get rolling offensively.
“Those O boards were huge. Emma got a couple of putbacks and had a really nice game, and Jace was a load. Down the stretch she kept getting O board after O board and giving us second opportunities, which were big,” said Schweyen.
Gabi Harrington, who is turning into a sparkplug off the bench, finished with nine points and seven rebounds in 19 minutes. Her performance was a reminder of what the Lady Griz missed last Saturday, when she was limited by the flu to a single minute played.
“It was great having her back out there. We really missed her presence in the South Dakota game,” said Schweyen. “She is making the most of her minutes.”
The win sets up a delightful Sunday matchup against UC Davis, which shot 57.9 percent in its victory over Nevada.
The Aggies, the two-time defending Big West Conference regular-season champions, are led by 6-foot-4 Morgan Bertsch, who scored 21 points against the Wolf Pack to become her school’s all-time leading scorer, the UCD men’s program included.
“They are talented and have great balance, and their post player is the real deal,” said Schweyen. “She’s like a 6-4 guard who can score inside or outside. It will be a good test for us.”