Lady Griz Did Montana, Big Sky Conference, Proud in 55-47 Loss to UCLA

By BILL SCHWANKE for MakeItMissoula.com

Anybody who watched the Montana Lady Griz struggle until midway in the season, climb the emotional ladder only to slide down for three straight games late in the regular season and then show their determination by winning three games in three days in Portland, Ore., to earn an NCAA Tournament berth shouldn’t have been surprised by what they saw from the team against UCLA in Spokane Saturday.

But honestly, I was.  I just didn’t think, regardless of how good Montana was defensively, that they would be able hang with the 8th-ranked Bruins like they did.

But while you realize how many turnovers the Lady Griz had, and how poorly they shot – especially in the first half – you also realize that determination and guts do count for something. There’s no other way to explain being down by only four with 1:16 to go after a pair of Stephanie Stender free throws.

You could wonder out loud, or to yourself, if UCLA had overlooked Montana and come out flat, but hey, that’s part of the game. Regardless of the Bruins’ mental approach UCLA still had better athletes and size, and they had problems finding an inside game against the Lady Griz defense.

I mean, while the Lady Griz had 25 turnovers, UCLA had 19 of their own.

Even when UCLA scored at the buzzer to take a 9-point halftime lead doubt had to creep in. You braced yourself for an early second-half blitz by the Bruins that would bury the Lady Griz.

Sorry, UCLA, this team refused to be buried.

Like so many times before, especially in the latter stages of the 2010-11 season, heroines weren’t always predictable.

Alyssa Smith gave Montana an outside threat Saturday, hitting four of six from long range on the way to a game-high 14 points for the Lady Griz.

Senior Sarah Ena, not really visible in the first half, did some nice things in the final 20 minutes and wound up with nine points.

You had to feel bad for Stender. Anyone looking just at scoring stats would say she had a horrible game. But she led Montana, which outrebounded UCLA 34-32, on the boards with six.

While Stender shot just 1 for 10 from the floor, many of her shots were hurried as the shot clock wound down.

And therein can be found what really beat Montana in this game.

True, the Lady Griz were able to break UCLA’s game-long pressure defense much of the time. Problem was it often took way too much time to get the ball into front court, forcing rushed shot after rushed shot, especially in the first half.

The Lady Griz did better in the second half, but even down the stretch, when they were within five or four points, they were just too careless with the ball. Not all of Montana’s turnovers resulted from traps or double or triple teams. A good number of them were relatively unforced, just enough of them – perhaps – to cost Montana a chance for a major upset.

Regardless of how it played out or how you saw it was just an unbelievable, tremendous effort by the Montana Lady Griz. They finished the year with an 18-15 record after starting the season 3-and-8. The record doesn’t fit the demeanor and resolve this Lady Griz team showed, especially down the stretch.

Thanks to seniors Ena – who broke the school record for games played as a Lady Griz – Stender and Jessa Loman Linford. They all helped show us what heart is all about.

I’d love to hear your comments on what I’m talking about or answer any questions you might have. So have at it. I’m way beyond having my feelings hurt. And thanks for reading me. Back to Griz and Lady Griz Hoops blog home page.

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“Grizzly Bill” Schwanke is a UM journalism grad and Missoula native.  He spent 21 years doing play-by-play for Griz football and men’s basketball winning sportscaster of the year six times and working in Grizzly athletics for 15 years total. He’s enjoying retirement, especially the chance to spend time with his three grandsons. His wife Lynn and he have been married for 42years.