MISSOULA — Hitting the floor and crashing the boards kept the Montana women's basketball team close Thursday, but there was no overcoming its cold shooting.
The Lady Griz suffered their first home loss in six weeks, dropping a 64-58 decision to Big Sky Conference preseason favorite Northern Colorado in front of 3,155 fans. The Bears were simply too good in the fourth quarter, hitting 7 of 9 shots.
"We came out strong and I think we let up a little bit," said Montana guard McKenzie Johnston, whose team led by nine early. "They played more aggressive the second half for sure.
"Savannah Smith getting back in there after foul trouble in the first half helped them a lot. And we were making a few more mistakes on defense the second half. She was being more aggressive in the fourth quarter and it was all for her."
Smith led the Bears with 20 points, eight coming in the fourth quarter. True freshman Sophia Stiles scored 16 points and Madi Schoening had a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds for the Lady Griz, but they hit just 6 of 19 shots in the fateful final frame.
"I thought we really play hard, so it's unfortunate," said UM coach Shannon Schweyen, whose team surrendered possession of first place in the Big Sky Conference in falling to 7-3, 11-10 overall. "We double-teamed a couple times down under the basket when that wasn't in the game plan and left them open.
" ... They're a good team. They came in here and played tough and never gave up. We've been on the other side of that. We did a good job on the boards, took decent care of the ball, but needed some of those shots to fall."
Riding the momentum of a road sweep last week, Montana was brimming with confidence early. The hosts raced to a 13-4 lead behind seven points by Schoening and six by Stiles, who was making her first home start.
Neither team scored in the first five-plus minutes of the turnover-riddled second period. But Stiles hit a triple with 1:45 left in the half and the hosts took a 27-23 edge into intermission.
The second half was a different animal. The Bears (7-3, 15-6) hit seven of 10 shots and Smith, who was limited to two points in the first half, scored 10 third-quarter points in sparking the visitors to a 44-43 lead.
The Lady Griz regained the lead on a Stiles putback early in the fourth quarter. But the Bears responded with a 7-0 run. Montana cut its deficit to 55-54 on a Hailey Nicholson bucket with 3:27 left, but Northern Colorado used baskets by Krystal Leger-Walker and Bridget Hintz to regain control.
"I told them in the locker room, I said, 'I feel confident this is a team we can beat if we see them again on a neutral,'" Schweyen said. "It's a good basketball team but they're certainly not out of our realm.
"The girls were bummed to have a lead like that and let it slip away. We wanted to make sure we took care of things at home. But we are young and we've got to take something positive out of this."