MISSOULA — At times it seemed as if the Montana Lady Griz were at Savannah Smith's mercy.
She's that good.
The Northern Colorado senior guard tallied 31 points Saturday in a 73-62 win over Montana at Dahlberg Arena. Smith was dominant early, tallying 15 points in the first nine minutes, then scored four in the final three minutes to stem a comeback bid by the Lady Griz.
"She's one of the best players I've seen around in a long time," Montana coach Shannon Schweyen said of the reigning Big Sky Conference MVP. "She's just got an incredible change of pace and the ability to shoot the step-back threes and she gets to the hole good. A pretty complete player."
The league-leading Bears (10-4, 5-0, 10-4) used four 3-pointers in the first seven minutes to put the Lady Griz (8-7, 3-3) in a hole at 22-7. From there it was a game of catch-up and injury-depleted Montana didn't shoot well enough to get the job done, finishing at 40.7 percent (24 for 59).
"(Guard) Katie (Mayhue) hurt her foot in the Eastern game a little bit and (Guard) Taylor (Goligoski) is hurting a little bit, so we're extremely thin right now," Schweyen said. "We went from thinking we had all this depth on the perimeter to all of a sudden it's like, oh my goodness, will we have enough subs for today?"
For all of their struggles shooting and turning the ball over 16 times, the Lady Griz still managed to pull within striking distance, 68-62, on a Jace Henderson bucket with just under 3 minutes left. That's when the 5-foot-6 Smith had her most impressive drive of the day, weaving through three Montana defenders before scoring a layup in front of 6-2 Emma Stockholm, who had good position in the paint.
The Lady Griz never scored again, missing their final five shots.
"Savannah has kind of got the 'it' factor," UNC first-year coach Jenny Huth said of her star player, who piled up 32 points against Colorado earlier this season. "She's shifty. Just really creative. Being a fifth-year player, that evolves. She's definitely a special player and super dynamic."
With the win, Northern Colorado maintained sole possession of first in the Big Sky, one game ahead of 4-1 Idaho State and Idaho. The Lady Griz, who were in first place heading into last weekend's action, find themselves in sixth with a full week to rest before hosting Idaho on Saturday.
"The break really comes at a good time for us with our health situation," Schweyen said. "We need this time to get some practices to work on things. And we've got lots of ailing little things going on right now."
The Bears have a quick turnaround. They host Montana State (8-7, 3-2) on Monday night.
At least for Sunday, Huth's team will enjoy its productive week on the road. The Bears won in overtime at Eastern Washington last Monday and played with impressive composure in front of 2,924 fans at Dahlberg Saturday.
"It's really great to see how Montana rallies around their team," Huth said of her first visit to Missoula after serving an an assistant coach at UCLA the past seven seasons. "I'm just grateful for your fan base here that they keep showing up no matter what. It helps our conference a lot."