MISSOULA — The bunnies came in bunches early for the Montana women's basketball team.
Then it was just a matter of holding on against hard-charging Saint Francis on Sunday.
After seizing control with a 15-0 run in the first quarter, the Lady Griz survived a shaky finish, emerging with a 79-77 win in the Husky Classic consolation game at Alaska Airlines Arena in Seattle. Montana led by 20 points with just over eight minutes left.
"Thank God it was 20 and not 18," Montana coach Shannon Schweyen told KMPT radio. "The threes nowadays and how quick they can score, as much as you talk about it, sometimes it's hard to tell kids you've got to be that close (on defense)."
Montana (5-4) finished with a whopping 44 points in the paint against the porous zone defense of the Red Flash. That helped the Lady Griz shoot a season-best 52.5 percent from the floor (32 for 61).
But it was nearly all for naught.
Montana struggled when Saint Francis (2-8) went to a press defense in the fourth quarter. The Red Flash scored 11 unanswered points with the help of four 3-pointers.
Late heroics by junior guard McKenzie Johnston and true freshman guard Katie Mayhue enabled the Lady Griz to seal the deal.
Johnston hit a jumper with 1:39 left that stretched Montana's lead to 76-71. Mayhue hit two free throws with 65 ticks remaining to make it 78-72.
Phee Allen's deuce and Jenna Mastellone's triple pulled the Red Flash within a point with 32 seconds left, 78-77. Johnston stepped to the free-throw line with 19 seconds left and made one of two attempts, then Montana emerged victorious when Jess Kovatch's open look from the top of the key at the buzzer missed the mark.
"We lost her twice on block-out free throws, she got two (triples) off of that, then we went for a steal late where shot got one," Schweyen said of Kovatch, who finished with a game-high 20 points, 18 coming on six triples. "But credit to her for making it a close game. She's a nice player."
Saint Francis, an NCAA Division I program located just outside of Pittsburgh, finished with 14 treys. Five different shooters hit from long range for the Red Flash.
"The big girl had four threes, and how often do you see your 6-4 post stepping out and doing that?" Schweyen said of Saint Francis senior Courtney Zezza. "It's just one of those games you've got to guard everybody like they're a shooter."
Montana enjoyed good scoring balance, led by post Jace Henderson with 18 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists. Johnston added 15 points, Emma Stockholm 14 and Mayhue 10.
"Jace is one assist from a triple-double, just unbelievable," Schweyen said. "She made some great decisions. Just a big-time game for her.
"At halftime we told them we were hurting them from the post and we'd be crazy not to get it in there."
Schweyen is hoping her team's ability to escape in a nail-biter gives it some confidence heading into Big Sky Conference play a week from Saturday. The Lady Griz will make one more appearance before then, hosting NAIA Montana Tech in an exhibition game on Thursday at 7 p.m.
Notes: Montana has won four of its last six games and two of its last three away from Dahlberg Arena ... The Lady Griz saved their best shooting for last, hitting 7 of 11 shots from the floor in the fourth quarter ... Sophomore guard Sophia Stiles dressed for the Husky Classic but did not get in for Montana. She will reportedly make her first appearance of the season in Thursday's exhibition game ... Montana is tied for the third-best record in the Big Sky Conference along with Montana State and Idaho State, who are also 5-4. Portland State is 8-0 and Northern Colorado is 5-3.