MISSOULA — With their rising star writhing on the floor, something came over the Montana Lady Griz Saturday.
Just over 7 minutes remained in the third quarter when freshman Sophia Stiles went down with what appeared to be a serious left knee injury. Her team was clinging to a two-point lead and the break in action left all involved with time to think.
"Obviously hard always seeing somebody go down," said Montana coach Shannon Schweyen, her voice cracking with emotion afterwards. "I think the girls really got fired up about that. Sophie has had an amazing season so far and hopefully it's not season-ending for her.
"I heard them say, 'Let's play hard for Sophe.' It was definitely emotional, definitely inspirational."
The Lady Griz responded with a 16-8 run that put them up by 10 with just under 9 minutes left. North Dakota rallied to tie late but Taylor Goligoski canned a 17-foot jumper with 3 ticks remaining to lift Montana over the physical Fighting Hawks, 53-51, at Dahlberg Arena.
"It felt really good, especially to be the game-winner," said the Hamilton product Goligoski, who finished with 11 points. "The play call was for me to get it up top and either shoot the three or go make a play after I get it.
"I had hit a couple shots before that so I felt confident going to take that last shot. Losing Sophia (Stiles) made us all pick up the intensity."
The win kept the Lady Griz in the thick of the Big Sky Conference race. They improved to 8-3 in league play and 12-10 overall and share second place with Northern Colorado and Idaho, one-half game behind leader Weber State (8-2, 16-5).
With wins over Montana State and Northern Colorado in January, the Hawks (3-8, 10-12) were not about to back down to Montana, even with a partisan crowd of 2,943 cheering against them. Neither team shot well in the first half but the Lady Griz benefited from 3-point goals by Goligoski, McKenzie Johnston and Emma Stockholm in building a 21-19 lead.
Montana managed to hold onto a lead throughout the third frame despite Stiles' injury. Goligoski hit a shot at the buzzer and then another early in the fourth frame, keying an 8-0 surge that boosted her team's lead to 44-34 with 8:40 left.
North Dakota rallied behind imposing forwards Lexi Klabo and Fallyn Freije, who completed a three-point play with 24 seconds left to knot the score at 51-51. Montana called a timeout and the ball was inbounded to Johnston, who stood near the mid-court line, milking the clock down to 10 seconds before attacking.
Johnston, who finished with a team-high 12 points and eight assists, coaxed North Dakota into a double-team as she approached the right elbow. At that point she dished to Goligoski, who hit her fateful shot.
"It's a good position to be in with the score tied because either you're the hero or it goes into overtime," Johnston said. "It's a good confidence builder. Shannon (Schweyen) drew up a great play for us to run and Taylor knocked it down."
Montana's work was still not done. North Dakota inbounded the ball on its end with 2.2 ticks left and Jace Henderson made a heads-up play underneath for the Lady Griz, batting the ball as the final 2 seconds ticked away.
"Caitlin (Lonergan) was all over the (inbound pass), making that a tough pass," Schweyen said of her 6-foot-2 super sub. "Then Jace getting a hand on that and batting it down, it's almost like Super Bowl stuff. You don't want to get it up in the air and have a chance for a foul or tip-in.
"This group, they're fighters. ... They play with a lot of heart and never quit."
The game was bittersweet in more way than one. Not only are the Lady Griz in limbo now until they learn more about Stiles' injury this week, their budding conference rivalry with North Dakota is coming to an end. The Hawks are leaving the Big Sky after this school year and may not be back to Dahlberg any time soon.
"I loved having them as an opponent," Schweyen said. "An incredibly worthy opponent in the Big Sky Conference.
"They do a phenomenal job and Travis (Brewster) is a hell of a coach. He has a great team every single year. I don't know where he gets all those big kids all the time. We're going to miss having them in the league."