In the end, the team with multiple identities was unable to hang with the team playing — and peaking — with just one, and that’s why Montana State will go into the final week of Big Sky Conference matches with a chance to advance to the league tournament while Montana will be staying home.
The Bobcats (9-14, 5-9 BSC), the steadier of the two teams from point No. 1 through point No. 211, pulled out a must-have win on Sunday afternoon in Dahlberg Arena, holding off the Grizzlies (7-20, 2-12 BSC) for a 3-2 win and their first season sweep of the series since 2005.
Montana out-hit, out-dug and out-blocked Montana State, but the Bobcats had the advantage in one important area: they took termination-level swings every chance they had. That led to five more attack errors but, more important, 11 more kills in a match that was determined by a handful of key plays.
“What was frustrating was that you could see us go from really aggressive and play-making and controlling of the tempo to being tentative and not going for our serve or having miscommunication where there didn’t need to be any,” said UM coach Allison Lawrence.
“We seemed to flip-flop between being aggressive and being tentative and trying to play it safe.”
The match wasn’t back-and-forth as much as it had a couple of important moments that led to huge momentum swings.
After taking a 25-22 win in the opening set, Montana was poised to go up 2-0 when the Grizzlies built a 21-18 lead in the second.
Montana had nearly all the momentum at that point, but it left as quickly as you can say service error. An attack error, two Montana State kills and another attack error later, and Montana State led 23-21.
“Every time it’s Griz-Cat, you know it’s going to come down to the last two points in every set. We had opportunities and we made uncharacteristic or unforced errors,” said Lawrence.
“That’s a very good team that’s very steady. I thought we played at moments better than we have all year, but it comes down to our consistency and having the confidence that we can fight through those off moments.”
A Katie Rutecki kill gave the Bobcats a 25-23 win and Montana State cruised to a 25-18 victory in the third, hitting .333 for the set, to go up 2-1.
Montana State led 18-15 in the fourth and later 20-18 when the match’s next big moment arrived in the form of a ball that was headed out of bounds off a Montana touch. Missy Huddleston pursued it and somehow got it over the net. A couple of touches later and the Bobcats sent it into the net.
Huddleston’s hustle held off defeat, at least for the fourth set.
“What I was really proud of was that when the match felt like they were taking over in the fourth set, Missy made a huge coverage play that kept the ball alive,” said Lawrence.
“We gave that extra inch or two in our play to make things happen. I think our team and our fans can feel the difference between what that feels like and our near misses, and we have those two things going on at once. It’s frustrating not being able to be the aggressor consistently.”
Sparked by her momentum-changing play, Huddleston added a pair of blocks on two of the ensuing four points, and Baily Permann added a pair of kills to make it 24-23 in favor of Montana. The Grizzlies won it 25-23 when Permann and Huddleston teamed up to block Natalie Passeck on set point.
The final set went point-for-point early, but it could be summed up with a pair of numbers. Montana had two of its five service errors for the match in the set and generated just five kills.
Montana State scored three straight points to break free from a 6-6 deadlock and never trailed again. The result was something Lawrence could sense early in the set.
“There were a few moments when the ball was in the air and someone could have taken a jump and a swing, but we either set it over or passed it over,” she said. “We just gave them free opportunities by playing it safe rather than going for it.”
Montana, which will miss the tournament for the third straight year, will wrap up its season with home matches against Idaho on Thursday and Eastern Washington on Saturday. Both are at 7 p.m. in the West Auxiliary Gym.