By JOEL CARLSON
Trailing by 16 early in the fourth quarter, a potential epic comeback by Montana came up one play short, and the Lady Griz ended their season with a 65-62 loss to North Dakota Wednesday at the Reno Events Center in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky Conference women’s basketball tournament.
Montana (20-11) trailed 30-28 at the break but missed 14 of its first 15 shots to start the second half, and that allowed North Dakota to steadily build what felt like an insurmountable lead. The Fighting Hawks (18-12) went up 56-40 on Makailah Dyer’s 3-pointer with 7:56 left.
Flat on the deck and being counted out, Montana not only fought back, it finally found an offensive rhythm in the form of Kayleigh Valley either scoring or getting to the line, combined with some clutch shooting from her teammates.
What resulted was an improbable 22-4 run over a span of just six minutes. Haley Vining’s 3-pointer with 2:06 left tied it at 60, and Valley’s short jumper in the paint with 1:22 remaining gave Montana its first lead since the opening minutes of the game.
But all the good fortune needed to rally back finally ran out. North Dakota outscored Montana 5-0 in the final minute to defeat the Lady Griz for the third time this season and move on to the next round.
“We did a heck of a job coming back and taking the lead, and I don’t know how we did it,” said coach Robin Selvig, whose team went through two lengthy shooting slumps. “We weren’t making any shots, but somehow, someway, we fought our way back and gave ourselves a good chance to win.”
Trailing 62-60, North Dakota tied it when Leah Szabla finished a drive at the basket with 58 seconds left. The next play, a 50-50 call by the official — half the time it would go one way, half the time the other — went against Montana, and it changed the course of the game.
Valley, playing with four fouls, got the ball just outside the paint with her back to the basket. She spun hard into the lane and ran over Dyer with 38 seconds left. The offensive foul gave the ball back to North Dakota and sent Valley, who finished with a game-high 30 points, to the bench.
A Mia Loyd free throw with nine seconds left, her only point of the game, put UND up 63-62. She missed her second attempt. Montana rebounded, called timeout, and opted to advance the ball to the frontcourt.
With Valley, who felt like an automatic two points every time she touched the ball down the stretch, no longer an option, McCalle Feller took the inbounds pass and fed Alycia Sims on the left block. Sims, who had a drop-step layup available had she handled it cleanly, fumbled the ball out of bounds.
Kelsey Knox hit two free throws at the other end with four seconds left to make it 65-62, and Feller’s 3-pointer at the buzzer from just inside half court bounced off the rim.
“Alycia was going to have an off-the-glass lay-in, I think, and that probably would have been the game-winner. It might have gone in, it might not have,” said Selvig. “That’s a tough loss. Basketball can be a cruel game. We needed a different bounce or two.”
North Dakota advances to face No. 9 Idaho State in Friday’s semifinals. The Bengals rallied from nine down in the final 90 seconds to knock off No. 1 Montana State 52-50 on Juliet Jones’ 3-pointer at the buzzer, her only basket of the game.
Montana held a lead for less than five minutes in its two regular-season losses to North Dakota, and Wednesday’s game felt no different in the early going. The Lady Griz missed 10 of their first 11 shots to open the game and trailed 17-10 at the end of the first quarter.
The good news was Montana was doing everything else well. For the game the Lady Griz finished -2 on the boards against one of the nation’s top rebounding teams, turned it over just nine times and gave up only five offensive rebounds and two second-chance points.
“We did a lot of things right in this game, and that gave us a chance to win,” said Selvig. “We just shot horribly at times, and that makes it tough. You can get frustrated when you’re not making shots, but you have to keep working, and we did.”
In jeopardy of digging itself the same type of 17-point halftime hole it found itself in last Wednesday at Grand Forks in what would be a 73-61 loss, Montana finally discovered its offense in the second quarter. The Lady Griz hit nine of their last 14 shots of the half to pull within two at the break.
But any momentum Montana took to the locker room remained there. The Lady Griz missed their first 13 shots of the third quarter and would have gone basket-less in a quarter for the second time this season had Valley not scored with 37 seconds left.
And yet the Lady Griz, against all odds, still held the lead going into the game’s final minute.
After Dyer, who went 4 for 5 from the arc and finished with 16 points, put her team up 16, Montana answered with an 8-0 run. Feller’s three from the corner with 5:08 left made it 56-48 and let everyone in the building know the Lady Griz weren’t dead quite yet.
Knox answered for North Dakota to put her team back up 10, 58-48, but another 7-0 run by Montana, five of the points coming from Valley, brought the Lady Griz within three with three minutes still to play.
“I thought we got a little stagnant, and they really got into rhythm,” said UND coach Travis Brewster, whose team is 6-2 against Montana the last three seasons. “They did a good job of isolating some sets and did a great job of picking their spots on the floor and scoring.”
With the Fighting Hawks up five and in possession with just over two minutes left, Knox made an entry pass and went elbows high on a moving screen away from the ball. She was whistled for an offensive foul, which was followed by Brewster challenging the call until he was whistled for a technical.
Valley hit two penalty free throws to make it 60-57, then kicked the ball out to Vining on the ensuing possession, and Vining’s 3-pointer tied the score at 60.
After a Dyer miss, Valley, who established a new Montana single-season scoring record with 678 points, added her final points of the season with 82 seconds to play to give Montana what would be its final lead of the season.
“It was a heck of an effort by us. We shot poorly, but we hung in there and gave ourselves a chance to win at the end,” said Selvig.
Despite entering the season with just two returning starters and only a few other players with any significant experience, Montana still won 20 games for the 31st time in Selvig’s 38 years. The Lady Griz endured a four-game losing streak to end January, then responded by winning nine of their final 11.
“They’re a great bunch of young ladies, and they’re fun to coach,” said Selvig. “They had a heck of a year to get to 20 wins. You’d like to win one more here at the end and a couple more of the close ones, but they fulfilled my expectations. I’m proud of them.”
Montana Sports Information