Lady Griz overpower Sac State, turn focus to Boise

For as rough as February and early March were for the Montana women’s basketball team, the Lady Griz will take a two-game winning streak into next week’s Big Sky Conference tournament in Boise, Idaho.

Montana got 18 points from Jace Henderson on Senior Day and 18 from McKenzie Johnston to outlast Sacramento State 75-67 on Saturday afternoon at Dahlberg Arena in Missoula.

Tied 32-32 at the half, the Lady Griz used a big third quarter to take a lead they would hold the rest of the game. The Hornets would get no closer than six points in the fourth quarter.

Montana (14-15, 9-11 BSC) defeated Portland State 73-70 in overtime on Thursday to snap a four-game losing streak and will take the No. 7 seed into the postseason.

The Lady Griz will face No. 10 Southern Utah (7-22, 4-16 BSC) on Monday at 5:30 p.m. in a first-round game in Boise.

The Thunderbirds defeated the Lady Griz 71-56 in Cedar City seven days ago and have the benefit of being the one Big Sky team that concluded its regular season on Thursday.

Montana coach Shannon Schweyen was hoping for a more decisive outcome against the Hornets on Saturday, one that would have allowed her to reduce her starters’ minutes and still get the win.

It looked like it might be headed in that direction when Montana built a 13-point first-quarter lead, 22-9, but Sacramento State came back to tie it by the half, then hung around throughout the second half.

Johnston logged 37 minutes, Henderson 34, Sammy Fatkin 30, Gabi Harrington 29 and Emma Stockholm 24. Those five will largely make or break Montana’s fortunes next week in Boise.

“I was really hoping to be able to play our starters a little bit less, but you just can’t ever relax around these guys,” Schweyen said. “They press and get after you, so turnovers can happen quickly. They are capable of exploding quickly.

“We have two great wins heading into the tournament, so I feel pretty good about where we’re at going into Monday. I think we’re ready. It’s kind of been this way with this team this year. They’ve handled adversity and whatever’s been thrown at them.”

Henderson was the lone senior to be recognized prior to the game. Once the tears had dried and the game was underway, she put on what has become a standard performance for her this season.

She went 9 of 11 on her way to 18 points and added five rebounds and a team-high five assists.

“You always hope on Senior Day that your senior has a good one. I was happy to see her have such a fabulous game,” said Schweyen, whose team drew more than 3,000 fans for its final home game.

“It’s great that so many people came out to appreciate Jace. She has truly been one of the most unique Lady Griz stories in that she came here for volleyball before choosing basketball. She is a great story and a great person. It was a happy ending for her today.”

Montana scored the game’s opening eight points and held Sacramento State scoreless through the first four minutes. And it felt like it might be the type of runaway victory Schweyen was hoping for.

But the second quarter, the period that has produced an outsized share of cold shooting for Montana this season, tripped the Lady Griz up again.

They went 3 for 15 in the quarter and got outscored 21-10, which allowed the Hornets to not just rally but pull even by the break.

“We struggled in the second quarter, and that just killed us,” said Schweyen. “I felt like we got a lot of good shots around the basket. They just didn’t go.”

Sparked by Johnston’s 10 points in the third quarter and Henderson’s 4-for-4 shooting, Montana regained some modest separation.

The lead reached 10, 47-37, when freshman Kylie Frohlich scored inside. She would finish with a season-high eight points on 4-of-6 shooting. It’s the type of bench production Montana will need in Boise.

“I thought our bench did some good things,” said Schweyen. “Kylie had a big game, and that was great to see. She’s been playing well as of late and is making shots around the basket.”

Montana went up 65-52 midway through the fourth quarter on a Harrington jumper. Sacramento State would use the 3-point shot to three times close to within six in the final minutes, but the Lady Griz went 4 for 4 from the line down the stretch to hang on.

Hannah Friend and Kennedy Nicholas both had double-doubles in Montana’s 88-86 double-overtime victory over the Hornets in Sacramento in January.

Friend scored a team-high 15 points on Saturday but shot 4 for 12. Nicholas had a quiet seven.

Julynne da Silva Sa, who averages less than two points per game, helped make up the difference. She went 5 for 8 and scored 11 points in 20 minutes off the bench.

“Our main focus was doing a better job on Nicholas, and I think we did,” said Schweyen. “That maybe came at the cost of da Silva getting a few. She knocked a few down when we lost her around the basket.”

Stockholm finished with 11 points for Montana, which shot 44.4 percent and had just seven turnovers. The Lady Griz were also +10 on the boards, with 18 offensive rebounds becoming 19 second-chance points.

Harrington added 10 points and eight rebounds, Johnston grabbed a game-high nine boards.

The Big Sky tournament will open on Monday, with No. 8 Northern Arizona facing No. 9 Sacramento State at 2:30 p.m. Montana and Southern Utah will play at 5:30 p.m., followed by No. 6 Eastern Washington and No. 11 Weber State at 8 p.m.

If Montana advances, the Lady Griz would face No. 2 Northern Colorado at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday. The Bears twice defeated Montana during the regular season, by 11 in Missoula and by 18 in Greeley, with Savannah Smith scoring 71 points.

She had 40 more on Saturday as UNC dropped its final regular-season game at Northern Arizona.

Despite losing at home to Idaho State on Saturday, Idaho takes the No. 1 seed into the tournament. Idaho State is the No. 3 seed, Portland State No. 4 and Montana State No. 5.