By JOEL CARLSON
Kayleigh Valley scored a career-high 31 points, and Alycia Sims had her sixth double-double in the last nine games with 21 points and a career-high 17 rebounds to lead Montana to a hard-fought 84-75 victory over Weber State Saturday afternoon.
The win was the seventh in a row for Montana (18-9, 11-5 BSC), a streak that has allowed the Lady Griz to move into a tie for fourth place in the Big Sky Conference standings with North Dakota (15-12, 11-5 BSC) with one week of regular-season games remaining.
The Fighting Hawks, who have won 10 of their last 11, matched Montana’s win Saturday with an 86-79 victory at Sacramento State.
In a delightful turn of scheduling luck, Montana will face North Dakota, which won at Missoula last month 61-59, on Wednesday night in Grand Forks.
A victory by Montana wouldn’t clinch anything, but it would put the Lady Griz one step closer to earning a first-round bye at next month’s Big Sky tournament. A second loss to North Dakota would lock Montana into having to play a first-round game on the opening day of the tournament.
But that’s next week and beyond. For now, a celebration of a perfect 7-0 month of February, capped off by Saturday’s entertaining victory over the Wildcats.
It wasn’t all Valley and Sims in win No. 7. The seniors combined for 28 points, with both Doran and Vining hitting big shots in the fourth quarter, in a game Montana never gained separation from Weber State as much as the Wildcats, who shot 47.6 percent, just ran out of time and comeback opportunities.
“It was a pretty good ball game and a fun one for the fans with all the scoring,” said coach Robin Selvig. “We couldn’t stop them, and they couldn’t stop us.
“It’s not exactly how you want it to go. Our pride on defense got hurt a little today, but you have to give them credit. They are a tough matchup for us, because they basically have five guards on the floor. They lack size, but they have good players. A lot of kids who can shoot the three and get to the hole.”
In a game when both teams played to their strengths, Montana’s — size, ball security, interior scoring — won out in the end.
The Wildcats employed a five-out motion with plenty of dribble-drives that either finished at the rim or resulted in kick-outs to open 3-point shooters. Even undersized, Weber State scored 32 points in the paint but also took nearly half of its shots (30 of 63) from the arc.
Montana’s answer: With WSU defending aggressively on the perimeter and not helping on the interior as much as most of Montana’s recent opponents, it allowed Valley and Sims to get to work. Valley hit 11 of her 20 shots, Sims went 6 for 10. They combined to go 18 for 19 from the line.
The Lady Griz shot a season-best 56.6 percent overall, scored 25 of their 30 field goals in the paint and turned the ball over just 13 times against a team forcing nearly 25 per game in league.
“We did what we needed to do in terms of our strengths against theirs, which was rebound and get the ball inside,” said Selvig, whose team had a 37-21 advantage on the boards. “Our perimeter kids took care of the ball and got it to Alycia and Kayleigh around the basket.
“That’s the matchup advantage you have, and the girls did a good job of playing our strengths against their weaknesses. We did that well.”
Because of the Big Sky’s unbalanced schedule, Saturday was the first meeting of the season between Montana and Weber State, and the first chance to see a team that was picked 10th in the preseason coaches’ poll but has been winning impressively and with regularity since the start of the season.
Not only are the Wildcats surprisingly improved, they just played their 10th straight game without senior guard Regina Okoye, who is likely out for the rest of the season with a knee injury. She was leading the team in both scoring (16.9/g) and rebounding (6.7/g) at the time of her injury.
And Weber State still almost picked up its first win at Dahlberg Arena since 2005-06, as Brittney Dunbar scored 22 points to lead four players in double figures. The Wildcats’ shooting percentage was the second-highest of the season allowed by Montana.
“That’s a good basketball team, and they had a heck of a nice game offensively,” said Selvig. “We had a hard time guarding them.”
It took less than a minute to see Montana was going to have its hands full defensively. On the first possession of the game, Dunbar blew past her on-ball defender and got cleanly to the rim before any help could arrive. Uncontested layup, 2-0 lead.
Weber State shot 54.8 percent in the first half, which had 11 lead changes, and only turned the ball over six times. Montana led 39-38 at the break.
“They got confidence early on. When you’re scoring, you feel good about yourself,” said Selvig. “That’s why I always say, even if we aren’t making baskets, let’s make it tough for the other team.”
That didn’t happen until the start of the third quarter, and even then it was short-lived. Montana switched to zone defense, and Weber State missed its first eight shots of the second half before Kallie Quinn broke the drought with a 3-pointer at the 4:13 mark.
“That got them out of sync a little bit. Basically I told the team at halftime that it can’t get any worse than our (first-half) man (defense),” said Selvig. “The zone was good for us, but then they adjusted and banged a couple of threes.”
And it was close the rest of the way. Montana, which led 58-53 after three quarters, never trailed in the second half, but the Lady Griz never had a comfortable lead either. Up seven, then just two. Up eight, then just two. And repeat.
“It ended up being a shootout,” said Selvig. “Every time we almost got away from them, they answered.”
Weber State made what would be its final push when the Wildcats closed to within two, 72-70, with 3:32 left on Emily Drake’s 3-pointer. It would be WSU’s final basket until the closing seconds.
Valley hit a pair of baskets in the paint to make it 76-70, and Sims scored inside with 1:19 left to up the lead to 78-70. Vining’s spinning layup with 39 seconds left made it 80-72 and ended the suspense.
Doran, who hit a big 3-pointer midway through the fourth quarter and forced a Weber State turnover in the final minute, scored 12 points. It was the fourth time in five games she has scored 11 or more.
Vining finished with seven points and five assists, and Feller scored nine points before fouling out late. Mekayla Isaak, who came off the bench as Doran started her final home game, had five assists and four points.
And so it will come down the final week of the regular season. Montana State (20-6, 13-2 BSC), Eastern Washington (19-9, 13-3 BSC) and Idaho (20-8, 12-4 BSC) have clinched byes at the tournament. The No. 4 spot remains up in the air.
Montana will play North Dakota on Wednesday at 6 p.m., then take on eighth-place Northern Colorado (12-14, 7-9 BSC) on Friday at 7 p.m. in Greeley.
The Lady Griz will open the Big Sky tournament with either a first-round game in Reno on Monday, March 7, or a quarterfinal game on Wednesday, March 9. Next week will tell us which it is.
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