MISSOULA — A thrilling, edge-of-your seat comeback brought the Montana women's basketball team back from the dead Thursday.
Trailing by 21 midway through the third quarter, the Lady Griz suddenly came alive with a 20-2 run. From there they battled back-and-forth with Northern Arizona into overtime where the Lady Griz seized control and took the Big Sky Conference opener, 70-62, at Dahlberg Arena.
It was arguably the biggest win of Shannon Schweyen's two-year head coaching stint.
"I can't ever remember being down 20-some in the third quarter and coming back," said Schweyen, who has been a Lady Griz mentor for 26 years, including 24 as an assistant coach. "I'm proud of them."
McKenzie Johnston paced Montana with 18 points, 13 coming after halftime. Teammate Jace Henderson had a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds.
But this night was all about grit and determination for the hosts, who posted their fifth win in seven games and boosted their record to 5-7 despite shooting 31.6 percent (24 for 76).
"This team has so much heart and you can just see it," Henderson said. "We're together and that's how we play.
"It really felt like when we kicked into gear that's what happened: We all were together. That shows the potential we have and things we need to bring some consistency toward."
Montana labored through a nightmarish first half and trailed 35-20 at the break. The Lady Griz went 7 for 35 shooting with seven turnovers in the first two quarters and NAU (3-9) enjoyed an 18-6 advantage in points in the paint heading into the third quarter.
Simply put, the Lady Griz couldn't make shots or stop Northern Arizona from driving the ball to the rim. The Jacks hit 19 of their first 39 attempts from the floor while Montana made just 10 of its first 49.
"At halftime we were like, 'We're better than this,'" Schweyen said of her coaching staff. "We didn't shoot the ball well. We gave up way too much on defense. I told them, 'We didn't give up this kind of stuff against Kentucky and Marquette. Let's get out there and play some defense for cripes sake.'"
Northern Arizona went up 48-27 on a bucket by Kaleigh Paplow with 4:58 left in the third frame, then the worm turned. Montana went on a 20-2 run that stretched into the fourth quarter and featured three buckets by Johnston and two triples by Hamilton product Taylor Goligoski.
"We finally decided, 'You know what? We need to get this win,' and we kicked into a different gear," said Goligoski, who racked up 13 points and three steals. "We played really hard and had a really good defensive half that second half. We came up with a lot of big steals and rebounds."
Montana had a shot to close out the game in regulation when true freshman Sophia Stiles completed a three-point play with 30.8 seconds left. But Kenna McDavis hit a bank shot for NAU with 21.6 seconds left and the hosts misfired on a potential tie-breaking shot at the buzzer.
"We were tired," Goligoski said of her team's mindset heading into OT, "but we were thinking we came this far, we're not going to lose."
The Lady Griz played some of their best basketball of the night in the extra period in outscoring Northern Arizona, 12-4. The key point came with 54.6 second left when Goligoski hit a pair of clutch free throws to put her team in front, 64-62.
Montana's lead was still two points when Northern Arizona called timeout with possession and 24.5 seconds left. That's when Madi Schoening delivered the biggest defensive play of the game for Montana, intercepting a short pass from Olivia Lucero and quickly dishing the ball to Johnston who hustled down for what turned out to be a 3-point play after a transition layup.
NAU lost some of its composure late when Paplow was called for an unsportsmanlike conduct foul and Schoening came through with three made free throws in four attempts with 6 seconds left, bringing the score to 70-62.
"We wanted to make sure we were taking good shots," Schweyen said of her team's heady play in OT. "We felt like Jace (Henderson) was hurting them in there and Kenzie (Johnston) was putting pressure on them on the break.
"Madi (Schoening) got the big steal for us and then made those free throws down the stretch. It was just a will and not wanting to let it slip away."
NOTES: Montana sophomore forward Caitlin Lonergan did not play. She is still waiting to get clearance to compete in games after sitting out the first semester ... Northern Arizona has lost its last five games ... Stiles led the Lady Griz in assists with five and steals with four ... NAU hit just 3 of 13 shots in the fourth quarter but finished with a better shooting percentage (40.3) than Montana ... The Jacks won the battle of the boards, 49-43.