Southern Utah raced out to an 18-4 lead over Montana on Thursday night at Cedar City, Utah, but it wasn’t enough to hold off a comeback sparked by a pair of first-year Lady Griz players off the bench.
Sophia Stiles poured in a season-high 26 points to come within one of the program’s freshman scoring record, and Caitlin Lonergan added 18 points and nine rebounds as Montana won 74-65 to move into sole possession of first place in the Big Sky Conference.
Montana (10-9, 6-2 BSC) trailed 38-31 at the half and fell behind by 12 early in the third quarter before rallying for its second Big Sky road win.
Stiles scored 16 of her points in the second half, going 6 for 6 from the line in the final minute, as the Lady Griz scored the game’s final 10 points to improve to 16-1 all-time against the Thunderbirds (3-16, 2-6 BSC).
Stiles scored her 26 points on just 11 shots to record Montana’s best efficiency performance of the season. She hit eight of her 11, going 3 for 5 from the arc, and added six rebounds, four assists (with only one turnover) and a block and a steal.
“Boy, oh boy, Sophie put on a show tonight,” said UM coach Shannon Schweyen. “Just a phenomenal game for her.”
“Now that she’s hitting some threes, she’s becoming more complete, where she wasn’t necessarily looking to shoot those before.”
Not only did Lonergan score it well on 9-of-14 shooting, she helped slow down Southern Utah’s Whitney Johnson, who put up 10 first-half points on perfect 5-of-5 shooting and was the key to the Thunderbirds’ fast start.
“She got off to a really good start. She was making everything deep in the paint. We didn’t do a very good job of getting her pushed out of there,” said Schweyen.
Johnson would go just 2 of 9 in the second half and finish with 15 points. After shooting 63.6 percent in the first half, Southern Utah went 7 for 35 (.200) in the second.
“Going zone in the second half slowed them down a bunch, and Caitlin gave us a bigger body on (Johnson) down there,” said Schweyen. “I’m proud of the way the girls defended in the second half. They just continued to work hard and never gave up.
“It was a physical game. I was pleased with the way the girls responded to that. Keeping your composure on the road is always big.”
Southern Utah entered the game with just three wins this season but looked like a well-oiled machine in the game’s opening minutes.
The Thunderbirds hit eight of their first nine shots and gave every indication they were going to run Montana out of the America First Event Center and on its way toward Flagstaff.
The lead reached 18-4 when Johnson scored at the 3:55 mark.
“We didn’t get off to the best start,” said Schweyen. “We had a hard time stopping them. They didn’t get transition on us, but they were getting standing threes, give-and-go’s, on-ball screens. And they shot some 60 percent, so they absolutely lit it on us.”
And that would have probably sealed the fate of last season’s Montana team, especially on the road. But that now feels like it took place years ago, so far has this team come.
The Lady Griz responded to their deficit by scoring nine straight points, six of which came from Lonergan and Stiles off the bench. “We had to fight and claw our way back,” said Schweyen.
Montana pulled within five, 18-13, on a Lonergan basket with a minute remaining in the first quarter, but Southern Utah would extend its lead back to 14, 27-13, early in the second.
A half-court shot by Rebecca Cardenas at the halftime buzzer sent the Thunderbirds to the locker room up 38-31, and they built their lead to 12, 44-32, early in the third quarter.
But then Stiles took over, with plenty of scoring help from Lonergan and Taylor Goligoski, and the steady hand of McKenzie Johnston, who only scored six points but had nine assists against just one turnover.
Goligoski, in a shooting slump that predates 2018, scored 11 points in the second half and matched a season high with 13 for the game on a confident-looking 5-of-6 shooting.
“Taylor was huge tonight,” said Schweyen. “She’s been frustrated that she hasn’t been shooting the ball better, but we’ve been telling her we have faith in her.”
Goligoski, Stiles and Lonergan scored 18 of Montana’s 23 points in the third quarter, with Goligoski hitting a three and a fast-break layup that took the lead from 46-38 to 46-43, and Lonergan gave Montana its first lead of the game, off an assist from Stiles, in the final seconds to make it 54-53.
In a tight back-and-forth fourth quarter, Goligoski put the Lady Griz up 64-62 with 3:05 to play with what Schweyen called the biggest basket of the game.
Natalie Sanchez came right back for a 3-pointer for the Thunderbirds, but that would be their final lead and their final basket. Southern Utah would miss its last eight shots of the game.
Lonergan put Montana ahead for good, 66-65, with 2:33 to play, and the Lady Griz scored their final eight points at the line.
“We had some great stops down the stretch,” said Schweyen. “And Caitlin powered that thing in time after time.”
Montana won the game because it didn’t get rattled when it faced an early deficit, because the Lady Griz shot 63.6 percent in the second half to finish at 49.1 percent for the game and because they didn’t turn the ball over.
They coughed it up 20 times in the teams’ first meeting in Missoula in late December, which allowed Southern Utah to hang in that game. On Thursday, just 11 turnovers against the team that leads the Big Sky in turnovers forced, while executing its way to 18 assists and 49.1 percent shooting.
“I thought our guards did a great job. Eleven turnovers against these guys isn’t bad. It was a great effort by Kenz out there running the show tonight,” said Schweyen, whose team got a bump in its second-half shooting percentage with some break-out baskets.
“Transition was our friend tonight. We got out on the break, and everybody contributed. And our big kids ran the floor the whole time. I was pleased with the way we were pushing it tonight.”
And Montana got help on Thursday night as well, with North Dakota downing Eastern Washington 81-79 in Grand Forks and Idaho winning at Northern Colorado, 79-71, two of the three teams tied with the Lady Griz going into Thursday’s action. Weber State was off.
Montana will try to remain atop the standings on Saturday when the Lady Griz play at Northern Arizona, which lost at home on Thursday night to Montana State, 78-56.
“You can’t get a sweep unless you get the first one,” said Schweyen.