BOISE, Idaho — Pitted against a determined Northern Arizona team with a hot hand from 3-point range, Montana couldn’t afford any lulls Tuesday.
The Lady Griz had a big one midway through the game when the Lumberjacks went on a 16-0 run spanning the end of the first half and start of the second. From there NAU was able to hold on for a 68-65 upset win in a Big Sky Conference women’s basketball tourney quarterfinal at CenturyLink Arena.
The loss was especially painful for the veteran-laden Lady Griz, who twice beat Northern Arizona during the regular season. Instead of a dream match-up between Montana (17-13) and Montana State (24-6) in Wednesday’s semifinal round, the Jacks (16-14) will get their chance to knock off the historically-good Cats, who finished 19-1 in league play.
“Honestly I didn’t feel like it was real,” Montana senior point guard McKenzie Johnston said. “It’s kind of a shock that your season’s done. My heart dropped for sure. I wasn’t ready to be done.”
The Jacks’ 8-2 edge in 3-pointers and success tracking down long rebounds on both ends were key to the outcome. Despite being at a size disadvantage, they won the battle of the boards, 45-36.
“That was the biggest thing that stands out,” NAU coach and Havre product Loree Payne said. “It was one of our goals to really commit to rebounding and we took care of business.
“Then also the composure down the stretch. It’s something that has been a bugaboo for us. I feel like we were so poised, composed, mature, locked into our defensive switches and offensive execution.”
Montana’s inability to cover the 3-point line, which was a weakness all season, hurt it again Tuesday. Northern Arizona hit six triples in the second half, including three late in the third frame that helped it build a 45-37 lead.
“Then we switched from zone to man because they were getting pretty much everything they wanted from the perimeter,” Schweyen said. “The girls got after it. We had a spark there. Kenzi (Johnston) went into the huddle (during a timeout) and said, ‘Let’s get this thing going.’ Our seniors were instrumental.”
The fourth quarter was a tooth-and-nail struggle in which each possession was crucial. Montana shaved its deficit to 50-49 early in the period on a Sophia Stiles bucket, but the Jacks refused to relinquish the lead.
The final 71 ticks were a microcosm of Montana’s misfortune this season.
With her team trailing 64-61, Taylor Goligoski was called for a controversial foul away from the ball after a Northern Arizona player tried to set a pick on her. NAU cashed in with a free throw, then answered a pair of Johnston foul shots with two by Caitlin Malvar, making the score 67-63 with 32.5 seconds left.
Goligoski hit two free throws at :12.7 to pull her team within two, 67-65. Montana quickly fouled and Nina Radford made one of two foul shots to stretch NAU’s lead back to three points.
Montana called timeout and a play was drawn up for Emma Stockholm to shoot a three from the corner. It all came together when Johnston rifled the ball to Stockholm from inside the paint, but Stockholm missed the shot and time ran out.
The game marked the end of the line for Lady Griz seniors Johnston, Stockholm and Goligoski. Their team has lost its Big Sky tourney opener two years in a row.
Johnston finished with a game-high 18 points and six assists. Joining her in double figures scoring for Montana were Stockholm and Abby Anderson with 13 points apiece and Goligoski and Stiles with 10 apiece.
Both teams were mediocre shooting from the floor. NAU finished at 38.6 percent (22 for 57) and Montana at 37.7 percent (26 for 69).
To their credit, the Lady Griz did end a string of three straight losing seasons in 2019-20. But that didn’t make it any easier losing to a younger Northern Arizona team Tuesday.
Bill Speltz is Missoulian Sports Editor and has served as Sunday columnist the past 14 years. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at email@example.com.