MISSOULA — The power of belief has propelled the Montana women's basketball team to an impressive start in Big Sky Conference play.
Winless in their first 11 league games last winter, the Lady Griz have won five of their first six this season. Their latest victim was Portland State Saturday, with UM using hot shooting and the electricity of 2,886 fans to jolt the long and athletic Vikings, 69-53, at Dahlberg Arena.
Montana trailed by two at intermission but hit 16 of 29 shots in the second half.
"You have to give Montana credit. They were ready to play and it felt like a semifinal game at the Big Sky tournament today," Portland State coach Lynn Kennedy said. "They knocked some big shots down, especially early in the third. It changed the momentum and we weren't hitting shots."
With the win Montana maintained a share of first in the Big Sky with Northern Colorado (5-1, 13-4). The Lady Griz (9-8 overall) have won six of their last seven and they're riding a five game home win streak.
"We talked in the locker room today — we went through a lot last year, all the ups and downs and a lot of downs," Montana coach Shannon Schweyen said. "This is a really tight-knit group with all the things they've experienced.
"They're believing they can play with anybody and the tough November schedule really prepared us for this. I love the way they believe and play their hearts out."
Junior forward Jace Henderson was a thorn in Portland State's side all afternoon Saturday.
She set the tone early by beating the Vikings' vaunted zone defense with her strong inside presence. She did a lot of damage on the boards in the second half and finished with a double-double, collecting 16 points, 13 rebounds and four assists.
"That's a great team, so to come out ready to play and be solid on both ends was exciting," Henderson said of the Vikings, who fell to 3-2 in league play and 9-7 overall. "I felt like our defense, our mentality that we were going to shut them down, helped with our offense."
The key point came in the third quarter when Montana hit 7 of 14 shots, including three 3-pointers. Portland State, in contrast, converted just 2 of 14 shots in the quarter.
Schweyen said her team did not make any big adjustments after spotting the Vikings a 31-29 halftime lead. It was just a matter of the Lady Griz taking what Portland State gave them in the third frame.
"Jace (Henderson) was hurting them inside, so they were getting a little bit more collapsed and we had some nice inside-out (passes)," Schweyen said. "It certainly helps when we knock a few more of those down."
Saturday marked Emma Stockholm's best performance of the season. Schweyen showed faith in the sophomore forward by inserting her in the game with 6:04 left in the first period. The Washington native responded with 14 points, three rebounds and three assists in 18 minutes of action.
"They're a zone team and Emma is a shooter," Schweyen noted. "She's offensive-minded.
"Today I knew I was going to be getting her in there a lot. She's got a shooting touch and confidence when she shoots. I knew she had a couple in her."
Montana hit its first three shots in the third period in seizing a 37-33 lead. Madi Schoening and Taylor Goligoski each hit a triple and Henderson hit from close range.
Henderson and point guard McKenzie Johnston, who finished with a game-high 17 points, added buckets as Montana stretched its lead to 43-33 with 4:53 left in the third period. Portland State spent the rest of the game trying to make things interesting and failing to do so with 8-for-29 shooting in the second half.
"This is a team that has been scoring it up and is very potent on offense," Schweyen said of the Vikings, who ended Montana State's 31-game home win streak Thursday night. "Watching them on video, they're scary.
"I thought our ladies just stuck to the game plan and made it tough for them. We got lucky a little bit because they missed a lot of good shots, but we were there to clean them up and rebound them."
Montana will play just one game this week at Montana State at 2 p.m. Saturday. The Cats beat the Lady Griz twice last season but a lot has changed since then.
"We're hungry from last year not doing so well," Stockholm said. "This year we have a chip on our shoulder and we're ready to take on whoever."