GRAND FORKS, N.D. — In this case, the early bird got the burn.
Montana arrived late to the Big Sky Conference women’s basketball tournament, victimized by a travel fiasco that prevented it from practicing the day before the event. It didn’t seem to phase the defending champs at all on Thursday as they started strong and finished with a flurry in a 75-66 quarterfinal win over Montana State at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center.
The third-seeded Lady Griz (21-9) advanced to the semifinal round where they will face second-seeded Southern Utah (22-8) on Friday at 6:30 p.m. The Thunderbirds notched their sixth win in a row on Thursday afternoon, 86-78, over Sacramento State.
Montana sat in the Denver airport an extra four hours on Wednesday and didn’t roll into Grand Forks until about 7 p.m. The plane that was supposed to take them to Fargo in the morning was full and the Lady Griz had good reason to believe their seats were mistakenly given to the Bobcats.
Chalk it up as another intriguing chapter in Cat-Lady Griz lore. Call it the Plane Game.
“It kind of gave us motivation because the Cats got the plane that we were supposed to be on,” said Montana junior guard Kellie Cole, who turned in a monster game with 20 points, eight rebounds, four assists and four steals. “We had fun as a team (in Denver). I think the team bonding was better because of it.
“It didn’t really hamper us in the long run. It was just annoying.”
Montana coach Robin Selvig had every reason to be seething mad. But 36 years of coaching have taught him poise is the best policy in these situations.
“I probably felt after a long day I couldn’t have played, but I’m not 19 and 20 years old,” he said. “I certainly expect they can. Practice is probably overrated this time of year.
“It’s just one of those things I don’t make a deal of. You start making a deal of it might be a deal.”
Poor shooting was the Cats’ downfall in two regular-season meetings with the Lady Griz and the same theme continued Thursday. Montana State hit 22 of 61 shots and compounded its troubles by losing the battle of the boards convincingly, 46-33.
The first half was especially painful for the Bobcats. They hit just 6 of 26 shots in spotting Montana a 36-14 halftime lead.
“It felt like we were playing really tight, not really bringing the energy to the table that creates the offensive rebounding production,” said MSU coach Tricia Binford, whose team finished with a 15-15 record.
“Also we were just settling for really quick shots on the first side. That makes it difficult to get in there and rebound.”
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Starting guards Cole and Torry Hill were the catalysts in Montana’s first-half surge, scoring 12 and eight points, respectively. The Lady Griz held a 27-14 edge in rebounds and made the Cats pay for their mistakes with a 17-0 edge in points off 11 turnovers.
“Last time we played them we were down by one at half,” Selvig said of a game on March 3 in Bozeman. “But I think eight or 10 of their 27 points were second shots.
“They didn’t get any second shots the first half tonight. Then of course it went south for them a little bit. We were playing pretty well and they couldn’t buy one.”
Montana State mounted a big comeback at the start of the second half, using a 30-12 run to pull within four with just over nine minutes left, 48-44. Lady Griz reserve guard Kayleigh Valley responded with a clutch shot, rolling to the rim after catching the ball with her back to the basket.
“We’ve been hitting shots on the outside, so it left the basket pretty open,” said Valley, whose team went 6 for 16 from 3-point range.
Valley’s deuce kick-started a 9-2 run and Montana sealed the deal by hitting 20 of 25 free throws in the second half.
“We’re coming down from a 22-point deficit so you know (Montana is) going to make some runs,” Binford said. “You try to keep those runs as tight as possible, but we expended a lot of energy and effort to get it shortened up.
“You have to have that ability to come back and fight and claw without fouling. I thought the difference was getting that play that put them in the bonus with 11 minutes to go.”
Joining Cole in double figures scoring for Montana were Hill with 16 points and Valley with 10. Kalli Durham finished with 16 points and Jasmine Hommes 12 for the Cats.
Now Montana has the rematch it’s been craving with the Thunderbirds. Southern Utah whipped the Lady Griz on Feb. 26 in Cedar City, 69-49.
“I think the ladies really wanted to play them again,” Selvig said. “Not that we think they’re not very good and we’re going to beat them. It’s because we played so poorly last time and they played so well.
“It was really the only game all year we weren’t in. We couldn’t make a shot. We get an opportunity to show we’re better than that.”
NOTES: Selvig said Thursday that reserve guard Haley Vining has suffered her third ACL injury and will not play the rest of the season … Montana finished with a 22-12 edge in bench points over MSU … The Lady Griz didn’t shoot particularly well, hitting 35.6 percent of their attempts (21 for 59) … Montana held a 27-13 edge in points from the charity stripe.