GREELEY, Colo. - It didn't seem likely three weeks ago or even three days ago, but the Montana Lady Griz pulled off some late-season magic.
Tied for fifth place in the Big Sky Conference on Thursday, UM completed its climb to No. 2 on Saturday night with a thrilling 63-60 win over Northern Colorado. The Lady Griz secured a bye in the first round of the league tournament and will play in the semifinals on Friday at 4:30 p.m. MST in Cheney, Wash.
"It's a huge win for the ladies," Montana coach Robin Selvig told KENR 107.5.
"... We got something accomplished this weekend, and things had to go our way. This team is hanging in there and battling and I'm proud of them."
Montana's veteran leaders delivered in crunch time, moving their team to 10-6 in league play, 15-13 overall. After Jayne Strand made a layup to put the Bears up 60-59 with :27.4 left, senior Lauren Beck answered with an 8-foot jumper to give the Lady Griz a 61-60 advantage at :21.
Lauren Oosdyke misfired on a layup that would have given Northern Colorado the lead with eight seconds left. Montana junior Sarah Ena grabbed the rebound and was fouled by Oosdyke with six ticks left.
After a timeout by the Lady Griz, Ena made both ends of a one-and-one opportunity. The Bears had one last chance to knot the score on a long 3-ball by Kaisha Brown at the buzzer, but it didn't fall and Montana celebrated, with Selvig turning to his assistants for a victory hug.
"We sure battled and played hard," said Selvig, whose team held UNC to 33 percent shooting (19 for 58) with a hustling zone defense.
"It was a tough game. They're good defensively and got after us hard. It was a physical battle and we weathered the storm."
Montana's list of heroes was long on a night when the team overcame a 3-for-19 combined shooting effort by sharpshooters Beck and Kenzie De Boer.
Steph Stender scored a team-high 13 points, including two on a layup with 1:51 left that gave Montana a 59-58 lead. Ena finished with a season-high 12 rebounds to go with her eight points and reserve center Shadra Robison netted eight points and three blocks.
Montana first-year players Alyssa Smith and Alexandra Hurley also scored big buckets in finishing with seven and six points, respectively. And Jessa Loman Linford finished with six points, two blocks and two steals.
"Steph (Stender) had a big night with big shots," Selvig said. "Lauren (Beck) had a hard time getting shots down - (Courtney) Stoermer is a real good defender.
"Sarah has a lip the size of a basketball right now," he added, referring to an injury suffered by Ena. "I (inadvertently) froze her with the (late) timeout and she still buries the free throws."
The game was back-and-forth from the beginning. It featured 15 lead changes and 13 ties.
Northern Colorado, which finished at 6-10, 14-16, claimed its largest lead midway through the first half, 16-12. Montana bounced back to take a 30-27 halftime lead behind seven points by Stender and six by Robison.
Montana opened a 51-43 lead on a Smith jumper with 8:33 left. But the Bears responded with a 10-0 run, setting the stage for a nailbiter finish.
Montana finished in a three-way tie for second place in the Big Sky with Idaho State and Sac State. But the Lady Griz get the No. 2 seed for the tournament behind Eastern Washington by virtue of tiebreaker criteria.
The tournament sets up even better for Montana than it does for Eastern Washington in one way. The Lady Griz will play their semifinal Friday afternoon and the Eagles will play on Friday night. The subtle advantage could make a difference considering the title game is slated for Saturday afternoon.
"Everybody is pretty even now," Selvig said of the six-team Big Sky tournament field. "It's just two games now instead of three that we need to win."
Notes: Portland State's loss at Eastern Washington on Saturday opened the door for Montana to earn the No. 2 seed. ... Montana shot better than 40 percent (41.2) for the seventh straight game. ... Montana held a 28-14 edge in bench points. ... The Lady Griz out-rebounded the Bears, 39-33. ... Northern Colorado senior standout Whitley Cox, frustrated by Montana's zone defense, went 4-for-13 from the field. ... Stoermer led all scorers with 17 points, 15 coming on five 3-pointers. ... UNC is 0-for-8 in games against the Lady Griz.