MISSOULA — It was Ugly Christmas Sweater Night for the Montana coaching staff and their Lady Griz didn't play particularly pretty.
But a sluggish first half gave way to an inspired third-quarter performance Wednesday and from there they coasted to a 54-38 win over NAIA Rocky Mountain College at Dahlberg Arena. Montana snapped a two-game skid in improving to 4-7.
"Finals week, that's what I'm going to blame it on," joked UM coach Shannon Schweyen, whose team overcame 11-for-30 shooting in the first half.
"We were dead to come out with. We had no talking, no fire, no anything. Second half we came out and generated some points off turnovers, got some big steals that led to baskets and I felt like we picked it up a ton on the defensive end."
Both teams labored to knock down shots in the first half in battling to a 25-25 tie. Playing without two starters, Rocky Mountain hit 8 of 23 shots but kept pace with the help of an 18-17 edge in rebounds.
Montana seized control by hitting 8 of its first 11 shots in the third quarter. McKenzie Johnston and Jace Henderson were the catalysts, each with three buckets.
The Battlin' Bears hit just 1 of 11 shots in the third period.
"I think we ran a little bit out of gas," said Rocky coach Wes Keller, whose team remained at 9-1 because Wednesday was previously declared an exhibition.
"We played it really hard first half. When they stretched that lead we didn't take care of the ball. We turned that thing over 18 times tonight, which led to some easy baskets."
The Lady Griz lead was 44-30 heading into the final frame and from there they mostly maintained despite going 4 for 15 from the floor in the final 10 minutes. The Battlin' Bears did cut their deficit to 10 points twice but failed to draw closer down the stretch.
"We knew the second half we had to create our own energy and I think we really brought that for ourselves," said Montana sophomore guard Madi Schoening, who scored 10 points and grabbed six rebounds. "Now I guess we know once we play harder defense we'll do better.
"The press helped, even though we didn't use it all the time, because getting a couple steals brings our energy up and their energy down."
Montana finished with a 26-18 edge in points in the paint and a 39-32 advantage in rebounds. Senior Mekayla Isaak grabbed a team-high eight boards for the hosts.
"This isn't exactly the game I feel great going into conference after but I've seen a lot of games that are ugly during finals week," said the Billings native Schweyen, whose team will open Big Sky Conference play at home next Thursday against Northern Arizona.
"At least we responded in the second half. We've talked about we want to play hard for 40. We had our two last games get away from us in the fourth quarter. We need to clean that up and get better at that."
Rocky guard Hailee Farstveet led all scorers with 12 points but she also had a game-high seven turnovers. Teammate Markaele Francis scored 11 with a 5-for-10 shooting effort from the floor.
The game was a departure from last season when Rocky lost by eight and was dead even with the host Lady Griz with two minutes left. Although his team was short several mainstays, Keller credited Montana for its fight.
"They've had some bad luck with injuries to vital players," he offered. "I've had five ACLs on our team in two years so I know what it's like.
"But their kids played extremely hard. They're physical and they're definitely improving."