Lady Griz win fifth straight, take down Hornets

13 Dec 2021 | 08:23 | Basketball

Sophia Stiles was sensational and freshman Haley Huard was a spark off the bench on Thursday night as Montana opened its Big Sky Conference schedule with a 75-59 victory over Sacramento State at Dahlberg Arena in Missoula.

The Lady Griz (6-1, 1-0 BSC), who won their fifth consecutive game, led 36-30 at the half, then poured it on in the third quarter, outscoring the Hornets (3-5, 0-1 BSC) 24-9 while shooting 10 for 15.

Montana built its second-half lead to 24 and led by at least 14 the entire fourth quarter.

“I’m proud of our kids,” said first-year coach Brian Holsinger. “We talked at halftime about who we are and what we’re about, because I didn’t feel like we were who we are.

“We’re confident, tough, we hustle. I reminded them of who we are, and the third quarter really showed what we’re about. I’m proud of our kids for being confident in the second half.”

Stiles had her second consecutive double-double, the fourth of her career, with 11 points and a career-high 11 assists, the most for a Lady Griz since McKenzie Johnston had 11 against Sacramento State five years ago.

It was part of a 40-minute clinic in ball security. Montana had 17 assists in the game against just four turnovers. The team’s previous low this season was 11. It was the fewest turnovers for the Lady Griz since they had four against North Dakota in a home win in 2014-15.

Stiles was one of five players in double figures, with Dani Bartsch adding eight off the bench, as Montana, the Big Sky’s top shooting team, finished at 46.0 percent.

The Lady Griz got 29 points from their reserves, the Hornets just 10.

“Our bench has to come in and do great things,” said Holsinger. “The more people who can score, the more people who can come in and contribute, the better for our team. That was a fantastic effort by our bench.”

The leading scorer was Huard, who was ultra-efficient with 13 points in 18 minutes off the bench. She went 5 for 9 with a pair of 3-pointers.

“She does not lack confidence, I’ll give her that. She never saw a shot she didn’t like, and I love it because she can shoot it,” said Holsinger.

“She comes in and gives us a huge punch off the bench and knocks down some shots. Her confidence really rubs off on people. Hey, if this freshman is out here shooting it, why can’t I?”

That Montana led by as many as 24 points in the second half wouldn’t have seemed likely in the game’s opening minutes, when Sacramento State raced out to a 12-2 lead by hitting five of its first six shots.

“The first quarter was interesting. We did not execute our game plan coming out on defense,” said Holsinger. “Credit to them, they made shots.”

Lianna Tillman, the Big Sky’s leading scorer, finished with 19 points, right at her average, but on 21 shots. “The Tillman kid can really play. She can shoot it. She has a ton of confidence,” said Holsinger.

After a timid start that was lacking the confidence Holsinger addressed at halftime, Montana started making shots, but it was the team’s defense that allowed it to get back in the game.

The Lady Griz held the Hornets scoreless over the final 6:14 of the opening period. Sacramento State led just 12-11 after the first quarter.

After the teams traded the lead through the second quarter, Stiles sent her team to the locker room up 36-30 when she knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers less than 40 seconds apart in the final two minutes.

The Hornets were hanging around because of the scoring and distribution by Tillman and the inside play of 6-foot-5 center Isnelle Natabou. She had 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting and eight rebounds by the break.

“They’re big. The big kid inside did a good job. She really hurt us in the first half. We didn’t execute the way I wanted to,” said Holsinger, whose team held Natabou to just three second-half points on her way to a 15-point, 13-rebound double-double.

“The second half we threw a couple different looks at her that were a little tougher, just to get them out of their rhythm. I thought we adjusted really well at halftime and made it really tough on them in the third quarter.”

Of course not all is perfect, and it shouldn’t be on Dec. 2. Montana was just 11 for 20 at the line, and the Lady Griz allowed the Hornets to put up a 20-point fourth quarter, going 4 of 7 from the arc.

“We can play better than that. Our defense was okay. We survived. But our intensity on the defensive end was not consistent tonight,” Holsinger said.

“When we were good, we were really good. Any good team will take advantage of you as soon as you relax. We have to continue to get better in our consistency on defense.”

Abby Anderson added 10 points, her first time in double figures in four games, Carmen Gfeller had 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting, Sammy Fatkin had 11 and Bartsch finished with eight points and seven rebounds off the bench.

Montana will host Northern Colorado (2-4, 0-1 BSC) at 2 p.m. on Saturday. The Bears lost 63-57 at Montana State on Thursday night.

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