*** ARTICLE COURTESY GRIZZLY ATHLETIC DEPT.
No matter what Lady Griz coach Robin Selvig finds under the Christmas tree next week, it will be hard to top what he already has: a team playing good basketball and sitting atop the Big Sky Conference standings.
Montana (8-3, 2-0 BSC) won its third straight game and improved to 2-0 in the Big Sky with a commanding 82-55 victory over Sacramento State (5-5, 1-1 BSC) Saturday afternoon at Dahlberg Arena in Missoula.
The Lady Griz lead the nation in turnovers -- fewest per game, not most -- and they were at their protective best against the Hornets. They were also at their Grinchiest on the defense end.
Despite playing in its highest-possession game of the season and at the Hornets’ up-tempo pace, Montana turned it over just nine times, its fourth-straight game with fewer than 10 turnovers, while limiting Sac State to 28.6-percent shooting.
It added up to a surprisingly lopsided win against a team that has road wins this season at Oregon State and Thursday at Montana State.
“I’m sure happy about this one, because I think Sac State is pretty good,” Selvig said. “They are scary on video and coming off a huge win. And it’s not like we’ve been blowing people out, so you figure this is going to be another dog fight.”
It had the ingredients for one early. The Hornets hit three early 3-pointers, the only three they would have for the entire game, and raced out to a 13-7 lead before the game was four minutes old.
Not happy with the shots Sac State was getting against his zone defense, Selvig opted to go man, and that put an end to the Hornets’ open looks. The Lady Griz scored 15 of the game’s next 17 points and held Sac State to one basket over a seven-minute stretch to take a 41-26 lead into the half.
“After a slow start we had a real nice first half,” Selvig said. “We started zone, and they did some good things that we didn’t get covered. And they were making their threes.
“We didn’t stay in zone very long. We went man, and today that was our better defense.”
The pace of the game and Montana’s cross-court passing over the Hornets’ half-court defense gave the Lady Griz plenty of open 3-point shots. Taking full advantage were senior Alyssa Smith and freshman Shanae Gilham, who combined to go five of six from the arc in the first half.
It wasn’t all from the outside. Montana scored 14 first-half points in the paint, most of them coming from senior Katie Baker, who led the Lady Griz with 10 first-half points. She would finish with a team-high 12 points to go along with nine rebounds.
A three by junior Jordan Sullivan at the 15:10 mark of the second half gave Montana its first lead of at least 20 points, 51-30, and her sophomore cousin, Carly Selvig, made it 58-32 when she hit her first career 3-pointer.
Nearly 13 minutes still remained, but the game felt decided at that point to everyone in the gym outside of Selvig, who saw his team give away a 16-point second-half lead to Northern Arizona Thursday night before the Lady Griz pulled out an overtime victory.
“After almost letting the game get away from us Thursday, it’s sure a good feeling to take care of this one,” he said. “Believe me, (Thursday’s game) was on my mind, even when we were up 20 with four or five minutes to go. There was no relaxing because they can score it fast.”
With no Amy Patton on the Sac State roster, Selvig had nothing to worry about. Montana turned the ball over just four times in the second half while creating 39 shots. And the Lady Griz stayed hot from the line. They went 14 for 16 Saturday and in the week’s two games went 40 for 46 (.870).
In addition to Baker’s dozen, Sullivan added 11, as did senior Kenzie De Boer, who will take her 993 career points on the road early in the new year as she closes in on becoming Montana’s 29th 1,000-point scorer.
Six other players scored between six and nine points, and 11 players found the scoring column in all. Montana finished with a 34-8 advantage in bench scoring.
“I thought everyone played well,” Selvig said. “We would have been able to enjoy the Christmas break anyway, because it’s only a game, but it sure is nice to go on break off a big win.
“We handled their press and played fast with them. We took care of the ball and never let them get on any sort of a run. We never let up tonight.”
Montana improved to 17-0 against Sac State in Missoula, 32-1 overall, and reached at least 73 points against the Hornets for the 15th straight time.
Sac State’s Fantasia Hilliard, who scored 10 points in the game’s opening four minutes, led both teams with 20 points. Kylie Kuhns had her fifth double-double of the season with 15 points and 13 rebounds.
With Eastern Washington (5-5, 2-0 BSC) upsetting Idaho State in Pocatello Saturday afternoon, the Lady Griz and Eagles sit atop the Big Sky standings at 2-0, and those teams will meet three days into the new year in the next game for both teams.