MISSOULA — Some wins mean more than others.
Even in early December.
The Montana women's basketball team had a monster one Saturday in the first round of the Lady Griz Classic. Saddled by injuries and cold shooting in November, Montana ushered in December with a breakthrough performance, holding off Northern Illinois for an 86-70 victory in front of 2,816 fans at Dahlberg Arena.
The Lady Griz improved to 2-2 and earned a spot in the finals of their tourney against UC Davis (3-4) Sunday at 2 p.m. The Aggies beat Nevada 84-68 Saturday, forcing the Wolfpack (1-5) into the Lady Griz Classic consolation game against Northern Illinois (3-3) at noon Sunday at Dahlberg.
Key to Montana's big day was a fast start. The Lady Griz raced to a 28-10 lead in the first quarter behind 12 for-19 shooting from the floor.
"It's always fun when you're scoring the ball and shooting (57.8) percent," Montana coach Shannon Schweyen said of her team's 35-for-76 effort. "First half I thought we executed a lot better. It's just a big difference when you knock those down."
All five of Montana's starters finished in double figures scoring. McKenzie Johnston led the way with 18 points and eight assists and Jace Henderson racked up 16 points, eight rebounds and eight assists.
For Johnston, the day was extra special. Her dad, Mark, organized a bus trip from McKenzie's home town of Helena. Afterwards, McKenzie was showered with congratulations.
"Today was awesome," she said. "We came out with a lot of energy and we were sharing the ball.
"We talked in the locker room after the game about how we were getting good shots. We weren't forcing things. Making those extra passes, you're going to have a better shooting percentage. And it's a lot easier when you're scoring points."
Montana was on cruise control when Taylor Goligoski hit a 3-ball to give the team an 80-58 lead with 4:45 left. Then the situation got a little sticky for the hosts.
Northern Illinois went to a press defense and the result was four straight turnovers by Montana and a 12-0 run by the Huskies. At that point Schweyen had three true freshmen in her lineup in Carmen Gfeller, Katie Mayhue and Jordyn Schweyen. None of the three had experienced much press defense on the college level.
Schweyen made a switch to a more veteran lineup with her team clinging to an 80-70 lead and just over 2 minutes left. Goligoski responded with a 3-ball and Johnston added a bucket to salt the game.
"We gave the (freshmen) a spin there at the end and we had some turnovers and it made it interesting," coach Schweyen said. "Taylor hitting that three in the corner, that was a really big shot.
"But those young kids need to get that kind of experience in these games. They'll learn from that and so will we."
The win came at a good time for Montana after the team dropped its first two games against NCAA Division I competition. Last weekend's lopsided home loss to South Dakota left an impression and the Lady Griz found a way to turn the experience into a positive.
"We watched a lot of film on how (South Dakota) moved the ball and played hard on every play," Henderson said. "We thought, that's something we can do. That was our focus today.
"We've been talking so much about chemistry and everybody bought into that today. That we just need to be a better team as a whole. That selfless thinking is really going to take us far."
Montana will have its hands full with UC Davis. The Aggies reached the NCAA tournament last March.
"They're very athletic," Johnston said. "They have a big post (6-foot-4 Morgan Bertsch) that has guard skills. Se we're just going to have to be prepared on defense."
UC Davis 84, Nevada 68: The Aggies used a strong shooting performance to win the first game of the tourney. They hit 57.9 percent of their attempts from the floor (33 for 57).
Davis, raced to a 19-point halftime lead and never looked back. Bertsch paced the Aggies with 21 points. Teammate Kayla Konrad posted a double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds).
Plenty Coups High School product Terae Briggs led the Wolfpack (1-5) with 22 points. Nevada struggled to defend inside and was outscored 52-32 in the paint.