Gabi Harrington with trainer

Montana's Gabi Harrington talks with trainer J.C. Weida during Monday's Big Sky Conference tourney game against Southern Utah in Boise, Idaho. Harrington tried to play with the flu but saw limited minutes as the Lady Griz saw their season come to an end.

BOISE, Idaho — Even in her deepest moment of disappointment, nothing could pierce Jace Henderson's shield of positivity.

If only we could all be so selfless.

"I'll tell you what, the Lady Griz, when they get it figured out next year, and I think they're going to, they're going to be scary," she said after a heartbreaking upset loss to Southern Utah that ended her senior season in a Big Sky Conference basketball tourney opener.

Never has this sports columnist felt so bad for a Montana player or team.

You work all winter to prep for your tournament appearance, toiling through fatigue and pain and the loss of four teammates to injuries. You prepare as best you can to make a run, coming in with a head of steam from two straight blowout wins. Then you barely have enough energy to walk up a flight of stairs.

At least that was the case for starters Gabi Harrington and Emma Stockholm, who played with the flu. Both had to take fluids in the hospital.

Gabi was supposed to be celebrating her first college game in her hometown. Instead her reward for getting to Boise was a chance to sleep at her parent's house because she was so sick.

Nah, it wasn't supposed to be this way. At the very least Montana was supposed to beat a Southern Utah team that has lost nine of its last 11.

This was, after all, a plucky Lady Griz squad that found a way to beat three of the top four Big Sky teams despite losing four starting-caliber guards to injury back in December.

"The hard thing about being a coach is when you see those things happen to young ladies and their season's are ended," Montana coach Shannon Schweyen said. "Everybody goes through it. It was particularly hard on this team just because of the fact it happened to the same position. All those kids were the same spot.

"We had a lot of kids playing that we intended on red-shirting, but that's the way this season went. I thought they made huge strides and we did a lot of great things with those young kids. They're hungry to get back next season."

Barring injuries, which have riddled each of Schweyen's first three seasons at the helm, the Lady Griz are going to challenge for the Big Sky title next season. Mark my word.

It's not just their wealth of experienced guards, including tough-as-nails point guard McKenzie Johnston. It's up-and-coming freshman forward Kylie Frohlich, a Sentinel grad who played magnificent in Montana's final two games, hitting 8 of 12 shots. And it's incoming freshman Jamie Pickens of Helena, an exceptionally agile 6-foot-2 forward who can shoot and play physical around the hoop.

So, to review: All but one starter will be back for Montana. Plus there's battle-tested guards Sophia Stiles, Taylor Goligoski, Madi Schoening, Katie Mayhue and Jordyn Schweyen. Plus there's forwards Frohlich and Carmen Gfeller and Abby Anderson and that ringer from Helena, Pickens.

Will Montana miss Henderson? Of course. But Frohlich is no slouch, folks. The fight in her eyes was a sight to see Monday.

"One thing I know about Kylie is that she's going to play her butt off and she's going to go get rebounds," Schweyen offered. "Gosh did she end the season on a bright note. That ought to fire her up for next season. To play that well was huge kudos to Kylie."

Ok, ok, I know what you're thinking:

Speltz, your inner Cubs fan is showing again with that "wait 'til next year stuff." Didn't you say this was going to be the breakthrough season? Instead all we had was a third losing season in a row.

Yeah, you got me there.

Schweyen and the Lady Griz have a lot to prove right now. Montana fans deserve better for supporting this program through disappointing days since legendary head coach Robin Selvig retired.

Just please, stick with me on this one more year. The future is bright and the proud Lady Griz tradition of class, win or lose, will endure thanks in part to a leader I'm crowning as Montana's all-time Queen of Optimism and Goodwill, Jace Henderson.

"I can't tell you enough about the community of Missoula," Henderson said after Montana's final game.

"And this team and the coaching staff have really been special to me. They've helped me so much. They inspire me to be a better person every day."

Whew. That hits you where you live.

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Bill Speltz is the Deputy Sports Editor of the Missoulian. Email him at bill.speltz@missoulian.com or bill.speltz@406mtsports.com.

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