By JOEL CARLSON | Photos by WILLIAM MUNOZ
Montana went 15 rounds with Southern Utah Saturday afternoon at Dahlberg Arena and came away with a unanimous — though closer than anticipated — decision, winning 66-60 in front of a season-best crowd of 3,024.
Kayleigh Valley recorded her first career double-double with 27 points and 13 rebounds, and McCalle Feller added 13, but the Lady Griz, who built a 16-point lead early in the fourth quarter, were shaky down the stretch and had to hold off Southern Utah’s late comeback attempt.
After shooting 51.3 percent its previous three games and putting up 250 points on Florida Atlantic, Utah State and Northern Arizona, Montana (9-4, 2-0 BSC) had to grind its way to its fourth straight win.
“We’re not going to shoot 50 percent every game,” said UM coach Robin Selvig, “but we shot 38 percent and won. It’s an easy game when everybody is lighting it up. Tonight we had to find a different way.”
A different way and with different personnel after Alycia Sims (ankle), who was questionable even to play because of a bad back, was lost for the game late in the first half. Hannah Doran (nose) repaired to the bench in the fourth quarter and didn’t return.
“It looked like a MASH unit out there for a while. We lose Alycia and then Hannah, and we had lots of kids limping. It was a physical game. They get after you,” said Selvig. “Both teams played hard.”
Montana led 50-46 through three quarters, then started the fourth quarter scoring the first dozen points to build a 62-46 lead. But the final seven minutes were filled with errors and miscues, and that allowed Southern Utah (3-10, 0-2 BSC) to ultimately come within four before the clock ran out.
After a Feller three put the Lady Griz up 16, Montana missed its final five shots, turned it over six times and went 4 for 10 from the line.
Jamie Smith, one of four players in double figures for the Thunderbirds, started the near comeback with back-to-back 3-pointers that cut the lead to 62-52. Maren Herrud hit another triple late in the game to make it 64-60 before Kayleigh Valley drained a pair of free throws to close out the scoring.
“We had our chances to get away from them,” said Selvig. “We just didn’t shoot free throws well enough at the end.”
Montana shot 45 percent in the first quarter and raced out to a 21-12 lead, but Southern Utah would actually outscore the Lady Griz over the final 30 minutes. Which was surprising.
The Thunderbirds entered the game shooting 33.3 percent for the season, one of the worst percentages in the nation. They didn’t shoot it much better Saturday, 34.3 percent, but they had better efficiency numbers than Montana.
SUU had 18 assists on its 24 baskets and turned the ball over just 10 times, half its season average. The Thunderbirds turned it over just six times the last three quarters.
“Southern Utah played well,” said Selvig, whose team had 12 assists and 14 turnovers. “They did a better job running offense than they have been, and they scored enough to stay in it.”
Jessica Richardson, SUU’s bruising 5-foot-11 forward, had 18 points and 12 rebounds. Smith added 11, Ashleigh Munns and Breanu Reid 10 each.
“They’ve got some good players and quickness on the perimeter,” said Selvig. “What we didn’t do is cause any turnovers. They usually turn it over more than they did tonight.”
With Sims, the team’s third-leading scorer, out for the entire second half, the scoring burden fell on Valley and Feller, and they delivered, scoring 17 of the team’s 30 second-half points.
Valley, who will feel the physicality of the game on Sunday morning, had to fight her way through multiple defenders every time she attacked the basket from down low. She finished 8 for 20 and got to the line 14 times, where she hit 10.
“Kayleigh took a beating today. They had bodies going at her the whole game,” Selvig said. “You get spoiled with her, thinking she is going to handle contact and still make them. She made enough of them.”
Feller, who shot 63.6 percent the previous three games while averaging more than 30 points, added 13, but her points came on 6-of-17 shooting. She went 1 for 7 from 3-point range. “People get spoiled thinking every shot she takes is going to go down,” said Selvig.
Sierra Anderson hit both of her 3-point attempts and added eight points off the bench. Haley Vining had six, while dishing out a team-high three assists.
It was the sixth time this season Montana has held its opponent to sub-35-percent shooting. Eleven of SUU’s misses were the result of Montana blocks, a season-high. Mekayla Isaak, who grabbed eight rebounds, led the way with a career-high six blocks. Valley matched a career high with three.
Montana was one of five home teams to win Saturday on a wild day in the Big Sky Conference. Sacramento State broke its own Big Sky single-game scoring record in a 132-91 victory over Portland State, and Montana State and Eastern Washington both had big rallies to improve to 2-0 in league.
The Bobcats, who had three players score 20 or more points, rallied back from 17 down early in the fourth quarter to defeat Northern Arizona 86-77 in overtime. The Eagles trailed by 10 in the fourth quarter before coming back to post a 60-57 win over North Dakota.
Idaho won 66-56 over Northern Colorado. Weber State had the day’s only road win, forcing 31 turnovers on its way to a 61-46 victory at Idaho State.
Montana will face its first league road games next week, playing at Portland State (2-10, 0-1 BSC) on Thursday and at Sacramento State (4-8, 1-0 BSC) on Saturday.
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