RENO, Nev. — They may have stumbled into the Big Sky Conference tournament, but the Montana Lady Griz found their footing and displayed rare heart in a do-or-die situation Monday.
McKenzie Johnston scored a career-high 28 points and Caitlin Lonergan added 18 in leading UM to an 87-80 win over Sacramento State in the first round of the league tournament at the Reno Events Center. It was Montana's first postseason win under coach Shannon Schweyen, earning it a quarterfinal date with Big Sky regular-season champ Northern Colorado Wednesday at 1 p.m.
"This team is so gritty," said Schweyen, whose squad had dropped six of seven heading into Reno. "I just love the way they fight and continue to battle no matter who we lose and who's not playing.
"They just find ways to do it. We've had kids playing out of position and out of their comfort zones all season and it's just a huge tribute to the kind of kids they are. When the chips are down they just buck up and get after it."
Montana (14-16) has struggled with inconsistent shooting all season and it looked as though that might be the storyline again early in Monday's game. But after missing 14 of their first 16 shots, the Lady Griz found a rhythm, hitting 32 of their last 60, many coming inside where the team owned a 56-34 edge in points in the paint.
"We were more aggressive this time," said Johnston, whose team lost by 15 at Sac State on Feb. 10. "Their press, in the past we've kind of been back on our heels. But I think this game we were more aggressive in getting it across half court.
"Usually we had numbers and we were getting a lot of good open looks, a lot of looks in the paint."
Schweyen suggested that Johnston may have had a little extra incentive going into the game. The Helena native has been Montana's leader all season but when the all-Big Sky lists were announcement Sunday, Johnston's name was nowhere to be found.
"I felt like she deserved to be a first-, second- or third-teamer and I told her before the game, 'I'm going to be curious to see how you respond because I know what kind of competitor you are,'" Schweyen said of her all-Big Sky honorable mention guard. "She went out there today and showed.
"It was a little fuel for the fire. She's a born leader and she takes over when things are tough."
The first half was a back-and-forth battle that saw 11 lead changes. The Hornets (7-23) jumped to an 11-5 lead then fell victim to an 11-2 run spearheaded by Johnston with three buckets.
Nine different Montana players scored in the first half and the result was a 39-38 lead at intermission.
"We've had to deal with a lot of adversity with all the injuries," noted Johnston, whose team played the entire first half without starting post Jace Henderson, who is nursing a sprained ankle. "It feels like there's always something that's been going on. It's made us a stronger team, stronger people. It's made us come together and be a close team."
Schweyen called on Henderson to come in early in the third quarter with her team clinging to a three-point lead. It was obvious Henderson was not at 100 percent, playing on one leg at times. But the combination of Henderson and Lonergan helped the Lady Griz stretch their lead to 65-55 early in the final frame.
Lonergan had a total of eight points when it mattered most in the fourth quarter.
"I was pretty nervous going into it," she confessed. "It took a full half to feel comfortable but after the first half went by I felt pretty comfortable and it's just exciting to be here."
Montana enjoyed its best shooting performance since Feb. 24 when it blew away Montana State in Missoula. This time the Lady Griz shot 45.2 percent (33 for 73) and enjoyed a 56-34 edge in points in the paint. The team also showed marked improvement taking care of the ball, committing just seven turnovers against the Hornets.
"With their pressing lineups they're a lot smaller than us," noted Schweyen, whose squad piled up 18 offensive rebounds and 25 second-chance points. "(Rebounding) was an area where we had some advantage in size.
"We wanted three or four to board all the time (offensively)," added the coach, whose team totaled 45 rebounds to the Hornets' 40. "But then it's tough because if you get too many, they can get you in transition. Just a lot of heart for our girls to be working hard to get to the O-boards and then sprinting back on defense."
Lost in the hoopla of Montana's win was the performance of Sac State senior guard Maranne Johnson. She finished with a game-high 30 points and totaled 1,627 in her career.
Montana will play the underdog role Wednesday. Northern Colorado (23-6) beat the Lady Griz in the only meeting of the teams on Feb. 1 in Missoula, 64-58. UM led that game early in the fourth quarter before fading.