In a tense, physical tussle decided in the final minute, Idaho State's veteran guards thwarted Montana's gallant comeback.
Junior Kaela Oakes and senior Chelsea Pickering combined for 30 points, including the last eight, in leading the Bengals to a 58-51 win over the Lady Griz basketball team in front of 3,090 fans at Dahlberg Arena Saturday. It marked the end of Montana's nine game win streak against ISU.
"It was a knockdown, dragout and they end up standing in the end," Montana coach Robin Selvig said. "Give them credit.
"I told our girls I thought we played our butts off. I said I'm encouraged that we can be so much better than we are. A lot of the habits of what you do in the post, we're not there yet. We have tremendous room for growth, so we need to get smarter and better to go with our great intensity."
Idaho State fourth-year coach Seton Sobolewski, whose team stands alone atop the Big Sky at 3-0 (11-5 overall), put in perspective his first victory over Montana.
"We've had our heart broken a lot of times here in Missoula," he said. "To finally get one, I think that's where someone like Kaela Oakes comes into play. She's been here, been close several times, and maybe she's just sick of it. She wanted to get us over the hump."
Both teams played high-quality defense and nothing came easy on the offensive end. Montana trailed 29-26 at halftime and appeared to be in deep trouble with 13 minutes remaining, saddled with a 42-30 deficit.
But back-to-back threes by Kellie Cole and Alyssa Smith ignited the crowd. Montana (1-1 conference, 8-7 overall) fed off the electricity, using a 13-2 run to pull within one, 44-43, with seven minutes left.
Idaho State went back up by five on baskets by forwards Ashleigh Vella and Cydney Horton. Montana answered with a pair of Kelllie Cole buckets and would have been up by one if not for a missed layup.
Oakes answered Montana's 4-0 run with a bucket on a drive to the basket with 1:07 left, giving her team a 54-51 lead. The Lady Griz never scored again, turning the ball over once and missing a pair of treys down the stretch. Pickering and Oakes each hit a pair of free throws in the final 34 seconds to ice the game. Oakes finished with a game-high 18 points.
"I think we finally have an old enough group of experienced players where when it gets loud in here, the crowd gets excited, momentum starts swinging Montana's way, we're mature enough to handle it," Sobolewski said.
Much like the Bengals, the Lady Griz got a lot of points from backcourt personnel. Kenzie De Boer scored a team-high 16 and Cole tallied 15 in 23 minutes of action off the bench.
Montana's frontliners had a difficult time finding open looks against Idaho State's physical man-to-man defense. Starting forwards Katie Baker and Jordy Sullivan were held to three points combined, and Baker played just 22 minutes because of foul trouble.
"Obviously Katie we'd like to have more minutes out of her and the game was fairly physical so I could have put her in a little sooner maybe," said Selvig, who played his star forward 10 minutes in the second half. "But we had a nice little run (without Baker).
"That last three minutes we had a couple nice plays. But two-footers, we couldn't get them to fall."
Sobolewski's teams have had a lot of trouble defending Montana in the post in recent years. On Saturday his squad seemed to solve the puzzle with solid defense by Vella and Horton and plenty of help from their teammates.
"Baker is such a great player and Sullivan, it's really tough to guard them one-on-one in the low post," Sobolewski said. "We had to help each other down there. I think as a team that's what we did. And came up with the rebounds."
Idaho State held a 38-35 edge on the boards behind nine rebounds by Horton and eight by Vella. Baker grabbed eight for Montana.
The Lady Griz held a huge 20-1 advantage in bench points thanks in large part to Cole. But Idaho State canned six 3-pointers to Montana's four and held a 16-11 edge in points from the foul line.
The Lady Griz will try to regroup on Thursday when they play host to Northern Arizona.