MISSOULA — She may not be the tallest or the quickest, but Madi Schoening is certainly among the toughest on the roster for the Montana women's basketball team.
Hampered by a kidney issue since the summertime, the sophomore guard simply refuses to allow excuses to get in the way of her trademark grit. On Thursday she was in peak form against Sacramento State, collecting 20 points and eight rebounds in a 68-59 win in front of 2,333 fans at Dahlberg Arena.
The win, coupled with Northern Colorado's loss at Weber State, catapulted the Lady Griz back into a tie for first with the Bears in the Big Sky Conference. Both teams are 4-1 in league play.
"We just came out with kind of a chip on our shoulder," explained Schoening, who scored 12 points in the first half in helping her team build a 45-25 lead. "We wanted this one, especially with how they beat us both times last year.
"We're kind of the underdog. I don't think people are expecting us to come out and play as hard as we are. Our experience is showing. We had more room to grow than they did and it showed up tonight."
Montana coach Shannon Schweyen said slow starts have been an issue for the Lady Griz in their last few outings, including a loss at Northern Colorado Saturday. They did an about-face Thursday in posting their fourth straight win at home.
"Madi Schoening just came out on fire," Schweyen marveled. "She absolutely tore it up.
"She's had limited practices because of her recurring thing. But I told her, I said, "Hey, if this is what we need to do to get through it is not practice as much...' But she just came out and sparked everybody and did a little bit of everything."
Sacramento State (1-3, 3-12) appeared overwhelmed in the early going. The Lady Griz (8-8 overall) took the ball to the hole with great success in jumping to a 25-8 lead by the end of the first period. Seven times the hosts scored on layups and three times on baby hook shots.
"I like playing Sac because it kind of makes us pick up the pace a little bit," Schoening said. "I liked playing that kind of basketball in high school, more of a transition or driving sort of game. Getting to the hole is my kind of game that I like."
Montana stretched its lead to 20 points late in the first half and spent the remainder of the game holding off the Hornets, who tried in vain to rally with a fullcourt press defense. Sac State finally cut its deficit single digits, 65-57, on a pair of Kyhonta Doughty free throws with 1:13 left. But it was too little, too late as Montana milked the clock and benefited from a McKenzie Johnston's bucket with 1:03 left.
Ten Lady Griz saw playing time and all contributed in the rebounding department, where Montana owned a gaudy 52-29 advantage. Jace Henderson grabbed a game-high 12 boards and completed a double-double with 12 points.
Sacramento State shot just 38.2 percent from the floor (21 for 55) and piled up 13 turnovers.
"I thought we closed out pretty well (defensively)," Schweyen said. "They're hard to defend and keep in front of you all night long. They just have so many weapons and they can score in a hurry.
"They made it interesting late with some pressing, but 15 turnovers for us against pressing, I'll take that. They're going to cause some but we handled it pretty well."
Montana's depth was once again a valuable asset. The Lady Griz owned a 20-10 edge in bench points, with Sophia Stiles scoring eight of those and Caitlin Lonergan seven despite being slowed by the flu.
"Coming off the bench was definitely nerve racking at first but I've started to get used to it," said Lonergan, whose made her college debut two weeks ago. "I think it's working well. The coaches definitely understand what my strengths are and have people play around that I guess. I know what works for me and stick with it."
Montana shot 42.3 percent from the field (30 for 71) — its best outing of the new year. Johnston had an impressive overall performance with 10 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and four steals.
Count Schoening among those that feel pretty good about Montana's 4-1 league start.
"We're just trying to keep humble and keep our heads about it," she said. "We know how it feels to be at the bottom so we're just taking it one game at a time."