MISSOULA — Pitted against arguably the best team in the Big Sky Conference, the Montana Lady Griz made things mighty interesting Saturday.
High-powered Idaho built a 21-point lead early in the third quarter and it looked as if UM was headed for a humbling home loss. Then the Lady Griz rallied within four behind the scoring of McKenzie Johnston and Caitlin Lonergan, who combined for 25 second-half points.
In the end the Vandals held on for their ninth straight win, 67-56, in front of 3,353 mostly-disappointed fans. But it took special heroics by Idaho guard Mikayla Ferenz, who scored 10 points in the final 5-plus minutes, six coming on clutch 3-pointers after UM closed to four.
"We've got to stop burying ourselves," Montana coach Shannon Schweyen of her team's slow starts in its last two home games. "We've got probably one of the best comeback teams in the league. But in order to give ourselves a chance, we've got to quit burying ourselves by 20 and doing this all the time."
Coach Jon Newlee has felt the wrath of Lady Griz crowds in the past, first with Idaho State and most recently as Idaho's skipper. He had a feeling Montana was not going to go away quietly after spotting his squad a 41-22 halftime lead.
"Give them a lot of credit — they came out second half and played hard and Johnston was back in the game and it really gave them a big spark," Newlee said, alluding to the fact Johnston sat for 13 minutes in the first half with foul trouble. "I'm proud of our guys for hanging in there and taking the environment. The place was shaking, man.
"It's the best environment in the league. People talk about North Dakota, no way. This is the place. This is still the mecca of Big Sky women's basketball."
Idaho boosted its Big Sky record to 11-3, staying just a half game behind league-leader Northern Colorado at 12-3. Montana fell to 8-7 in Big Sky play and sits in a tie for seventh with next Saturday's opponent, Montana State.
"I think maybe (Idaho) will end up winning it before it's all said and done, the regular season," Schweyen offered. "But I like the way we matched up with them. They kicked our (butts) the first half and we came back and responded. I'm proud of our Lady Griz and how they competed."
Just like Thursday, Montana was slow out of the gate on the offensive end. The Lady Griz were 2 for 15 shooting in the first quarter and Idaho took advantage by building a 20-5 lead.
Montana closed within 10 on triples by Taylor Goligoski and Nora Klick midway through the second frame. But Idaho responded with a 16-5 surge that carried into the third quarter, giving the visitors a 43-22 lead.
Montana answered with a 16-4 run in the final 9 minutes of the third quarter. Johnston led the charge with six points and Lonergan added five.
"I think we attacked them more," said Johnston, who fought through a painful jaw injury that occurred in the first half. "We were the aggressors the second half. I thought we were getting more easy baskets, open baskets."
Lonergan hit a bucket with 5:38 left in the fourth quarter to shave Montana's deficit to 52-48 and the hometown crowd was in a frenzy. That's when Ferenz grabbed the wheel for Idaho, hitting back-to-back triples that stretched her team's lead back to 10.
The Lady Griz were back within six with just under 2 minutes left, 62-56, but failed to score again.
"I felt today was a really good step forward," Schweyen said. "I really did."
"Even though we lost I liked what we did today. Defensively, I haven't seen Taylor Goligoski defend like that. And she had some amazing close-outs. I do feel this was a positive step on the defensive end."