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Lady Griz beats Sac State-2

Sophomore McKenzie Johnston of Helena leads the Montana women's basketball team in scoring, assists and steals. Her Lady Griz will open Big Sky Conference tourney play with a 12:05 p.m. game Monday against Sacramento State in Reno, Nevada.

MISSOULA — Through tough times she has taken it upon herself to lead the Montana Lady Griz, refusing to accept rotten luck as her team's destiny.

It's been an uphill climb for sophomore point guard McKenzie Johnston of Helena. There was no easing into the lineup like so many of her predecessors in maroon and silver — way too many injuries for that.

Just like she has since the beginning of her freshman season, Johnston will lead her team into battle against Eastern Washington Thursday night at Dahlberg Arena. Asked if she feels added burden with backcourt friends Kayleigh Valley and Sophia Stiles lost to knee injuries, Johnston offers her predictable hardscrabble answer.

"We all need to step up a little bit more, do more of the little things to make up for what we lost," she said. "We're about the same team we were last year at this point, so we know what we can do. We just have to believe in it."

To their credit, the Lady Griz have come a long way since last February when they went into their final home stand with a Big Sky Conference record of 2-14. This time around they're 8-5 in league play and will secure a first-round bye in the conference tournament if they win their final five games.

That seems like a stretch right now after Montana (12-12 overall) dropped a pair on the road last week. The team has a back-loaded schedule and still hasn't fully recovered from losing Stiles on Feb. 3.

No one is more determined to turn things around than Johnston, who leads the Lady Griz in scoring (11.0 ppg.), assists (118) and steals (32).

"She's been a trooper through all this," UM coach Shannon Schweyen said. "Kayleigh (Valley) is a good friend of hers. Sophia (Stiles) is good friends with everybody.

"It's never easy when you watch your teammates go through this and go down. But she's a fighter, a competitor. She had a stretch against Portland State (last Thursday) where she had back-to-back steals, almost three in a row, and buried two threes. She has that relentless ability to compete."

No one is going to be under more pressure than Johnston when Eastern Washington (7-5, 12-12) shoots for its fourth straight win over Montana. The Eagles are averaging almost 11 steals per game in league play. That's almost twice as many as Montana.

"They're very aggressive," Johnston said. "You know they're going to take it all the way (to the basket). (Forward Delaney) Hodgins is a great player.

"I know it's going to be a competitive game at the point trying to get our team in offense and getting the ball down the court. I'm mentally preparing for a long game."

The good news for Montana is starting post Jace Henderson (groin injury) and guard Madi Schoening (kidney issues) are feeling better after a trying week on the road. On top of that, the Lady Griz are 9-4 at home, where they'd love to put together a three-game win streak with tough games against Eastern Thursday, Idaho on Saturday and Montana State on Feb. 24.

Schweyen believes it's imperative her team improve its second-half mindset. Twice last week the Lady Griz went into intermission feeling good and fizzled in the third quarter.

"It was the way we came out the second half when we needed to be adjusting and digging deep and getting some stops," she said. "We were absolutely not into it, not focused.

"The leading scorers on (Portland State and Sac State) were getting wide open shots against us. Even the girls admitted they felt something was out of sync. We certainly need to address that and do a better job."

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