For more than 35 minutes Montana looked like a team that was ready for a breakthrough win, and on the road no less. But the final four minutes proved costly, and the Lady Griz will have to wait for another day to pick up their first Big Sky Conference victory of the season.
Eastern Washington (11-8, 6-2 BSC), which trailed 36-29 at the half and by 11 in the third quarter, held Montana (3-17, 0-9 BSC) without a field goal the final 4:23 to finish off a big rally, winning 64-57 at Reese Court in Cheney on Thursday night.
Down 59-57, Montana failed to score on three straight possessions, then picked up an ill-advised foul 40 feet from the basket in the final minute while trailing by just three. Tisha Phillips’ free throws with 48 seconds left made it 62-57 and sent the Lady Griz to their 11th straight loss.
“We haven’t been in a lot of games like this, so I don’t expect us to be super experienced,” said first-year coach Shannon Schweyen. “We’ll learn from this for sure.”
The loss and cold-shooting in the final minutes spoiled what had been the team’s best offensive display of the season. The team shooting 33.2 percent for the season went 16 for 25 (.640) in the first half to build a 36-29 halftime lead.
“Finally tonight we made those shots we’ve been missing all year,” said Schweyen. “They played well. They came to play. It was nice to play tough on the road. I was really proud of them.”
McKenzie Johnston‘s acrobatic layup and free throw made it 44-33 midway through the third quarter, but Eastern Washington scored eight points in less than a minute to get itself back in the game in a hurry.
Delaney Hodgins’ 3-pointer cut the lead to six. One possession later Tisha Phillips made it 44-41 with another three.
A 3-pointer by Emma Stockholm put Montana up 49-43, but that would be Montana’s last hurrah. Eastern Washington scored the final nine points of the third quarter, all in the final 1:50, to take a 52-49 lead into the fourth.
Despite being in a one- or two-possession game for all but the final 18 seconds of the fourth quarter, Montana wasn’t able to generate enough offense over the final 10 minutes to retake the lead, going 3 for 13 with five turnovers.
“We got tired and a little sloppy, and all of a sudden it turns into buckets for them unfortunately,” said Schweyen, whose team was outscored 35-21 in the second half.
With Montana trailing 59-54 and the game in its final five minutes, Hailey Nicholson hit a short jumper to make it 59-56. Madi Schoening hit one of two free throws with 3:42 remaining to make it 59-57.
The Eagles were nearly as cold as the Lady Griz in the fourth quarter, going 4 for 12. They left the opportunity for the win there for the taking, but Montana failed to grab it.
After three straight misses by Montana, Ashli Payne hit one of two free throws with 1:15 left to extend the lead to 60-57. Another miss left the Lady Griz in a three-point game entering the final minute.
On Eastern Washington’s next possession, Montana committed a foul going for a steal well beyond the 3-point line, not what Schweyen drew up in the timeout that preceded the critical possession.
“It obviously wasn’t our intention to foul, because if we get a stop there, we have a chance to come down and tie it, so that was a bummer,” she said.
“But like I told the team in the locker room, it wasn’t just that one play. Every possession of the entire game is important.”
Phillips, who was fouled on the play, hit two free throws with 48 seconds left to make it 62-57, Montana turned it over on its next possession, and that was the game.
“I wasn’t really fired up with the last couple of shots we got,” said Schweyen. “I would have liked to have gotten something a little better with a better chance to crash the offensive boards, but you’ve got to take what you get.”
Delaney Hodgins, the Big Sky’s second-leading scorer, finished right at her average, scoring 18 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.
Phillips, who scored a team-high 20 points in Eastern Washington’s 60-46 win in Missoula three weeks ago, scored a game-high 26 off the bench, hitting eight of her 11 shots, going 4 for 5 from the arc and 6 of 8 from the line.
“She’s a little stud,” said Schweyen. “She dribble-jumper-ed us to death. And she hit threes and got to the line. She’s a nice player.”
It wasn’t just Phillips who hurt Montana. The Eagles as a team grabbed 15 offensive rebounds, 11 in the first half, and turned them into 17 second-chance points, 14 more than the Lady Griz created.
“They are strong and physical. That hurt us,” said Schweyen. “The start of the game was really bad as far as the boards went. We’ve got to clean that up.”
Taylor Goligoski, who scored 10 points in the first quarter to get Montana rolling early, finished with 13 points, as did Nicholson, whose game is ready to take off but whose confidence is still lagging behind. She started on Thursday for the first time in more than a month, against her will.
“She’s been nervous to start, and she hasn’t wanted to start,” said Schweyen. “Finally I told her, we’re all going through stuff we don’t want to go through this year. Let’s get over it.
“She went 6 for 9 and had a beautiful game. She’s just going to get better and better all the time.”
Stockholm added 11 points in 15 minutes off the bench, Johnston had six of Montana’s season-high 11 steals, and Mekayla Isaak and Rachel Staudacher both dished out four assists, as the Lady Griz finished with more assists than turnovers for the third time in four games and shot 46.2 percent, a season best.
Montana will face Idaho (9-10, 4-4 BSC) at 3 p.m. (MT) on Saturday at Moscow. The Vandals fell 66-61 at home to Montana State on Thursday night. The Bobcats held Idaho to six 3-pointers and Mikayla Ferenz, who scored 41 points five days ago at Northern Arizona, to just eight on 2-of-16 shooting.
In other league games Thursday night, North Dakota won 75-70 at home over Southern Utah, and Northern Colorado remained unbeaten in league with a 75-64 home win over Northern Arizona.