By JOEL CARLSON
No McCalle Feller was no problem for Montana Thursday night, as the Lady Griz shot a season-best 54.1 percent on their way to a convincing 81-50 victory over Southern Utah at Centrum Arena in Cedar City, Utah.
Kayleigh Valley, who became the 32nd player in program history to reach 1,000 career points when she converted a fast-break layup late in the fourth quarter, scored 30 points to lead four players in double figures, and Montana won its third straight to quietly work its way to within a game of a top-four spot in the Big Sky Conference standings.
There was plenty of uncertainty entering the game. Feller, the team’s second-leading scorer, was on the bench with her injured ankle but not in uniform. The Thunderbirds were winless in league but had lost seven of their Big Sky games by 12 points or fewer. And Montana had trouble putting Southern Utah away last month in Missoula, finally pulling out a 66-60 victory.
Coach Robin Selvig needn’t have worried.
After falling behind 10-9 in the opening five minutes, Montana (14-9, 7-5 BSC) scored the final 17 points of the period to go up 26-10 after one and built a 42-24 halftime lead. The outcome was never in doubt in the second half.
“It was important that we got off to a good start defensively tonight. Even though they haven’t been winning, they haven’t been getting blown out either. If they hang around, you’re in for a fight,” said Selvig. “We really took the wind out of their sails early.”
Valley was fantastic, with 30 points on 12-of-17 shooting, nine rebounds, three assists and a pair of blocks. And even without Feller, she had all the support she needed.
Big Sky Conference Player of the Week Alycia Sims had 14 points on 7-of-11 shooting, Hannah Doran, making her second career start in place of Feller, had 15 points and seven rebounds, and Sierra Anderson came off the bench to score 11.
Anderson’s five field goals matched the number she had in Montana’s previous nine games.
“Kayleigh was great again. We did a nice job getting her the ball. And Alycia shot the ball well again,” said Selvig. “It was nice to see Sierra come in and make some shots. She gave us a good spark tonight.”
Southern Utah hit three of its first six shots, and Tiarra McDonald’s 3-pointer midway through the first quarter put the Thunderbirds up 10-9. It was one of the few highlights for SUU (2-20, 0-12 BSC).
Valley converted a three-point play on Montana’s next possession to give the Lady Griz a 12-10 lead, and her 3-pointer the next time down the floor made it 15-10. Back-to-back jumpers by Sims made it 19-10, and the rout was on.
Southern Utah missed its final six shots of the first quarter and first two of the second. By that time the Lady Griz, who shot 53.1 percent in the first half, led by 18 points, 30-12.
“We handled their pressure once we got a lead. That’s how you shoot 54 percent, by getting layups breaking pressure,” said Selvig. “We didn’t shoot it well from three, but we got a lot of bunnies, and that’s how you get that kind of percentage.”
Montana had 23 assists — all eight players who saw the floor had at least two — and just 11 turnovers. It was the third straight game the Lady Griz have recorded 22 or more assists.
Southern Utah, which turned the ball over 18 times, shot 30.4 percent the first half, 27.6 percent the second, to finish at 28.8 for the game, the fourth time this season Montana has held an opponent below 30 percent.
Jamie Smith led the Thunderbirds, who have not defeated an NCAA-recognized opponent since mid-December, with 12 points. Jessica Richardson, the team’s leading scorer, was limited to seven points on 1-of-6 shooting.
“We were trying to keep it from Richardson, and we did that. She didn’t get many looks,” said Selvig, whose team won just its second game this season on an opponent’s home court.
“It was obviously a good game for us, one of those that went really well. It’s nice to have those once in a while when you’re not sweating at the end.”
The win, coupled with Weber State’s 87-64 loss at Sacramento State Thursday night, brings Montana within one in the loss column of a top-four position in the Big Sky standings. The top four seeds earn a bye to the quarterfinal round at next month’s tournament in Reno.
The road will likely get tougher on Saturday when Montana faces Northern Arizona (6-17, 2-10 BSC) in Flagstaff at 5:30 p.m. The Lumberjacks stuck with league-leading Montana State for most of their game Thursday night before falling 83-72.
In other league games Thursday, Idaho State won 64-42 at Portland State, North Dakota, which won its seventh straight game, knocked Eastern Washington out of a first-place tie with MSU with a 72-69 win in Grand Forks, and Northern Colorado beat Idaho 70-68 in overtime in Greeley.
Montana Sports Information