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Lady Griz get defensive, win sixth straight

13 Dec 2021 | 08:22 | Basketball

The Montana women’s basketball team won its sixth consecutive game on Saturday afternoon, downing Northern Colorado 57-44 at Dahlberg Arena in Missoula to finish off a 2-0 start to its Big Sky Conference schedule.

Carmen Gfeller scored a game-high 19 points and Katerina Tsineke added nine points and seven rebounds, all of which came in the second half, as the Lady Griz (7-1, 2-0 BSC) rallied for its second victory this season when trailing at the half.

The story of the game is this: Northern Colorado (2-5, 0-2 BSC) led 20-13 with more than a minute left in the first quarter, after the Bears hit their fifth 3-pointer of the opening period.

Over the game’s final 31 minutes, Montana harassed Northern Colorado into 7-of-35 shooting and just 24 more points.

“That’s what we’re going to hang our hat on all year. This is why I stress defense all the time. That allows you the opportunity when things aren’t going your way. It allows you the opportunity to win games like this,” said first-year coach Brian Holsinger.

Montana won by 13 despite shooting 40.7 percent, its second-lowest percentage of the season. That works when the other team finishes at 29.8 percent, the fifth time this season the Lady Griz’ opponent has shot less than 32 percent.

“I’m really proud of them. These are the games that show you’re a good team. We’re not a great team by any means, but we’re a good team,” said Holsinger.

“It wasn’t pretty. It was a grinder and a hard one. But as a coach you love those. It’s winning ugly, and to me, those mean a lot more than winning pretty.”

Like Sacramento State did on Thursday night, when the Hornets raced out to a 12-2 lead, Northern Colorado lit up Dahlberg Arena from the opening minute.

The Bears hit three 3-pointers in the first three and a half minutes to build an 11-2 lead, then hit two more to take a 20-13 lead.

That Northern Colorado still led 29-27 at the half was more an indication of Montana’s afternoon-long struggles on the offensive end. The Lady Griz would finish with a season-low six assists on their 22 made field goals.

“I don’t think I had them prepared offensively for what we were looking at. We didn’t execute, and that’s on me,” said Holsinger. “I didn’t have them ready for some of the stuff they threw at us.”

So his message at halftime was pretty straightforward: “Hey, we’re going to grind this out and win this thing with defense.”

And some Katerina Tsineke.

After Northern Colorado opened the third quarter with a 3-pointer to go up 32-27, Montana answered with seven straight points.

Tsineke started the run with a short jumper. After Sophia Stiles made it 32-31, Tsineke converted a three-point play on a runout fast break and Montana, up 34-32, wouldn’t trail again.

The lead reached nine, 46-37, at the end of the third quarter when Tsineke grabbed a defensive rebound in the closing seconds and streaked to the other end for an acrobatic layup just before the horn.

“She was a huge spark. She really led us in the second half,” said Holsinger.

Montana could have buried the Bears in the final period but shot just 2 for 12 over the final 10 minutes.

That allowed Northern Colorado to have possession down just six midway through the period, but Montana’s defense was up to the challenge.

The Bears, who couldn’t miss early, went 4 for 25 in the second half, 2 for 14 in the fourth quarter.

“We didn’t play our best all game. It was pretty obvious to anybody sitting in the stands that we didn’t play our best,” said Holsinger.

But the Lady Griz are 7-1 and in a tie atop the Big Sky standings, with league play not resuming until after Christmas.

“That’s the bottom line. This one was not pretty, but the bottom line is you want to protect home court,” Holsinger said.

Dani Bartsch, super-sub, added eight points and five rebounds off the bench in 17 minutes. Stiles, who had 11 assists on Thursday, added three more on Saturday, and Abby Anderson grabbed eight rebounds and matched a season high with four blocks.

It wasn’t just defense that won the day. Montana also allowed just four offensive rebounds, which led to zero second-chance points for the Bears, nearly a statistical impossibility. But if you don’t get second-chance opportunities, you can’t score second-chance points.

“To win games, you have to win that battle,” said Holsinger, whose team went 11 for 13 from the line after missing nine free throws against the Hornets. “We shot some free throws yesterday, and it looks like it helped.”

Montana will go out of league for its last three games before Christmas, starting with Utah Valley (4-3) on Thursday at 7 p.m.

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