Courtesy: Montana Sports Information
Montana shot 50 percent and assisted on more than 80 percent of its baskets on Saturday afternoon at Dahlberg Arena as the Lady Griz improved to 2-0 in the Big Sky Conference with an 81-71 victory over Southern Utah.
Hailey Nicholson came off the bench to hit eight of her nine shots and match her career high with 17 points, while Madi Schoening and McKenzie Johnstonboth scored 15 points, combining to go 12 for 19 with 10 assists.
A calendar year that opened last winter with nine consecutive losses closes for Montana with three straight wins and some momentum heading into 2018.
"We keep having these firsts with this group, and this is another one, to start off conference undefeated and tied for the lead," said coach Shannon Schweyen. "It's encouraging to see this group continue to improve. I like where we're at."
Montana (6-7, 2-0 BSC) gained early separation from Southern Utah (1-12, 0-2 BSC), jumping out to a 24-15 lead after the first quarter and leading 41-28 at the half, and never let the Thunderbirds catch back up.
Southern Utah cut Montana's lead to five, 50-45, midway through the third quarter, but a strong finish to the period gave the Lady Griz a 63-48 lead going into the fourth.
Nine turnovers by Montana in the final 10 minutes allowed Southern Utah, which forced 20 for the game, to trim a 22-point lead to nine in the final minute before the teams settled on a 10-point final margin.
"They made a good run at the end. We turned it over to make it interesting," said Schweyen. "We were being nonchalant with the ball and not meeting passes. We didn't have quite the intensity we needed."
Nicholson was 1 for 9 in Montana's previous two games, but she looked automatic on Saturday, hitting everything from finishes at the basket to jumpers from 15 feet.
She went 5 for 5 in the first half, then hit her first two shots of the third quarter before missing a jumper from the free throw line. She added another make early in the fourth quarter.
Nicholson played 23 minutes and was a big reason Montana won as comfortably as did. The Lady Griz outscored the Thunderbirds by 28 when she was on the floor.
"It was so nice to see her ball go in," said Schweyen. "She's been frustrated. We talked before the game about how they are not very big and don't block a lot of shots, so to take our time. She did that."
It was also a breakout offensive game for Schoening, whose shots may not always drop but whose effort never does.
She was 6 for 29 the previous four games but looked confident in hitting the game's first basket, a 3-pointer that was true the moment it left her fingertips.
Schoening would go 4 for 7 from the arc, 5 for 9 overall, and add a season-high eight rebounds and three assists.
"I love how hard Madi always plays. It's never a matter of effort with her," said Schweyen. "Her ball hadn't been going in as of late, so it was great to see her shooting with confidence."
The calendar year was also a long journey for Caitlin Lonergan, who joined the program in January but was unable to play until Saturday. She was finally cleared on Friday morning, once fall-semester grades were posted.
She was a point-per-minute performer in her debut, putting up seven points in seven minutes. She first entered the game to start the second quarter but didn't score until her second appearance, in the fourth quarter.
Her first points came as expected. She boarded a miss by Jace Henderson and scored on the putback while being fouled. Anticipation + hops + strength.
"I was happy for Caitlin to get her first minutes and first bucket as a Lady Griz," said Schweyen. "She was definitely nervous her first go-round. Her second time she was able to relax a little bit and show people what she is capable to doing.
"She's such a quick jumper in the post. She elevates and uses the glass well. And she's powerful."
In addition to Nicholson and Lonergan helping Montana's bench outscore Southern Utah's 35-11, Nora Klick got eight minutes, enough to drain a pair of 3-pointers, part of the Lady Griz' 10-for-24 effort from the arc, a season high for both makes and percentage (.417).
Montana's reserves shot 61.9 percent overall.
"It was nice to see kids who get limited minutes come in and do something and experience a game like that," said Schweyen.
Taylor Goligoski, who made just six triples her first nine games, hit three for the second consecutive game to finish with nine points.
Rebecca Cardenas, who was 3 for 17 in the teams' matchup at Dahlberg Arena last February, scored a game-high 22 points for the Thunderbirds. She also added eight rebounds, five steals and four assists as Southern Utah lost its ninth straight game.
Montana will play its first league road games next week, facing North Dakota (7-6, 0-2 BSC) on Thursday and Northern Colorado (10-3, 2-0 BSC) on Saturday.
The Bears wrapped up a 2-0 road trip with a 78-72 victory at Idaho on Thursday. The Fighting Hawks lost both games on the same trip by a total of nine points. They gave up an 11-point fourth-quarter lead to fall 74-70 at Eastern Washington on Saturday, two days after giving up an 11-point lead at Idaho.
In other games on Saturday, Montana State won 81-39 at home over Northern Arizona, Portland State pulled out a 74-73 decision at home over Sacramento State and Weber State picked up a 76-70 win at Idaho State.