Things changed for Montana on Sunday afternoon at the Husky Classic in Seattle faster than you can say Jessica Kovatch.
Holding a 20-point lead early in the fourth quarter against Saint Francis, Montana had to sweat it out until the final second before winning 79-77, after Kovatch, who set the NCAA record last year for 3-pointers made in a season, led her team in a spirited comeback attempt that came up one basket short.
“Thank goodness (the lead) was 20 and not 18,” said Lady Griz coach Shannon Schweyen. “With threes nowadays and how quickly (Kovatch) can score it, I’m happy we were able to hang on.”
Kovatch, she of the unorthodox release but with 141 3-pointers made last year and more than 2,300 points scored in her career, went 6 for 11 from the arc and Saint Francis hit 14 triples overall, but in the end Jace Henderson and Montana’s balance were two points better.
Henderson, one assist shy of a triple-double, packed her stat line with 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting, 10 rebounds, nine assists, five steals and three blocks.
McKenzie Johnston added 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting and had the shot of the game for the Lady Griz, a floater off the glass in the lane with 1:39 to go after a 19-2 run by Saint Francis had brought the Red Flash within three, 74-71.
“Someone needed to make a play, and Kenzie went in there and knocked it down. That was a big shot,” said Schweyen, whose team will take a winning record (5-4) into its Big Sky Conference schedule for the first time in her three seasons.
“It’s good experience for us to be in that situation. We need those kinds of experiences. I’m just happy we came out on the positive end.”
Slow to get going offensively on Saturday in its 69-54 loss to Washington, Montana came out scoring on Sunday, putting up 24 first-quarter points and noticeably looking to push the ball up the court, no matter whose hands it was in.
The Lady Griz, who led 24-13 after one quarter, 39-30 at the half, had 17 fast-break points for the game, a season high.
“I thought our transition game was really nice today. We had a lot of nice fast breaks. Our bigs ran the floor well,” said Schweyen.
And in the case of Henderson, an honorary big at six-foot, she was spotted often leading the break, ball in hand, assist ready to be dished.
“A big-time game by her. Just unbelievable,” said Schweyen. “She led the break a bunch and made some great decisions.”
Nothing that occurred in the third quarter or first four minutes of the fourth suggested that it would be anything but Montana cruising to a victory.
The Lady Griz scored 10 straight points early in the third quarter to go up 49-33 and outscored Saint Francis 9-2 to open the fourth, on a 3-pointer by Katie Mayhue and back-to-back baskets by Taylor Goligoski, to go up 70-50.
When Goligoski, who matched her career high with four assists, hit Gabi Harrington under the basket with a sweet no-look pass with 6:09 to play, Montana led 74-57.
Then the wheels started to wobble, but they never did fall off. Montana had turnovers on five of its next six possessions, and the Red Flash had their opening.
“We got way to nonchalant with the ball, passing it around like they weren’t going to be coming after it,” said Schweyen.
“We walked that fine line of trying to use some clock but not too much. You want to be aggressive too. It was lessons learned and teachable moments for sure.”
A 3-pointer by Courtney Zezza, one of four for her for the game, made it 74-64, but it was Kovatch’s at the 2:42 mark that made collars start to tighten.
Phee Allen missed a shot in the paint, but she grabbed her own rebound and got it out to Kovatch, whose triple made it 74-69. The Red Flash had scored 17 points in a little more than four minutes.
“They did a really nice job of locating her on scrambles,” said Schweyen. “Credit to her for knocking them down and making it a close game. She’s a very dangerous player.”
Saint Francis hit a pair of free throws at the 2:00 mark to make it 74-71. It was as close as the Red Flash had been since the first quarter.
The moment that followed didn’t require a hero, just someone who would handle the next possession with calmness and an ability to finish in the paint. Enter: Johnston.
She got into the lane, pump-faked her way to an opening, stepped through and kissed one off the glass. It wasn’t technically the game-winner, but it felt like it. Montana led 76-71.
Saint Francis cut the lead to 78-74 with 49 seconds left, then made Montana pay for its seventh turnover of the period, its 20th of the game, with a 3-pointer that made it 78-77 with 32 seconds still to go.
Johnston hit one of two free throws with 19 seconds left, giving Saint Francis a chance to tie or win it with a three.
For as loose as the Lady Griz were in giving up almost every point of their lead, they were rock solid when they had to be. Saint Francis found nothing at the other end with the clock winding down, other than Kovatch’s rushed, off-balance 3-pointer at the buzzer that didn’t hit anything.
“It was a good win for us,” said Schweyen.
Emma Stockholm finished with 14 points on 6-of-11 shooting, Mayhue added 10 off the bench as Montana shot a season-best 52.5 percent.
The Lady Griz will host Montana Tech on Thursday at 7 p.m. in what will be an exhibition game for Montana. They open their league schedule on Dec. 29 and 31 with home games against Northern Arizona and Southern Utah.