MISSOULA — For someone that came to the University of Montana on a volleyball scholarship, Jace Henderson sure has been a godsend for the women's basketball team.
Now in her third year focusing on hoops, the redshirt junior has evolved into the most reliable member of the Lady Griz. She averages a team-high 8.1 rebounds per game and scores 9.5 points on 49.3 percent shooting — by far the best on a squad that struggles with shooting consistency.
Oh yeah, she also has a team-high 10 blocked shots and is tied for the team lead in steals with 12.
"I think we were put in a position where we needed somebody to get some offensive rebounds and just to have a lot of heart when we play and that’s something I’ve always felt comfortable doing," said the Billings native, whose squad will host a team from her hometown, Rocky Mountain College, in its final non-conference contest Wednesday at 7 p.m.
"I never envisioned the stats part of it. I just envisioned making the team better. That’s my goal every day."
Even when Henderson was averaging less than 13 minutes a game last season, coach Shannon Schweyen knew she was a tigress on the boards. Henderson averages close to 32 minutes this season and the added experience has made her a wiser, more complete player on both ends.
"It's the overall way she's learned to seal this year down at the post and demand the ball down there," Schweyen said. "To be a good post player you have to be relentless and she's become that. It's so fun to see that happen."
Schweyen, who served as an assistant coach under Robin Selvig for 24 years prior to taking the reins at UM last season, calls Henderson one of the most coachable kids she has ever been around.
"And we talk all the time about how positive her attitude is," the coach added. "Whether she's playing or on the bench she's just always upbeat.
"You tell her anything and she's making eye contact with you, nodding. She asks intelligent questions in practice. She's like a sponge wanting to take it all in and puts in the extra time on her game. It's great to see."
The goal for the Lady Griz (3-7) on Wednesday is to snap a two-game skid and build momentum heading into their Big Sky Conference home opener next week against Northern Arizona. Seeing how Rocky Mountain is an NAIA team that competes in the Frontier Conference, you'd assume a win would be easy pickings for NCAA Division I Montana.
But you better think again. The Battlin' Bears boast a 9-1 record and even though they look upon Wednesday night as an exhibition, they'd love nothing more than to post their first-ever win over Montana at Dahlberg Arena.
They came close last December, dropping a 64-56 decision in Missoula. The game was tied with two minutes left.
"They've got a transfer in Brooke Jones who started out at Carroll and she's a nice post player, good all-around scorer," Schweyen said of Rocky's 5-foot-11 scoring and rebounding leader from Manhattan.
"Then they have Mikayla Jones, the little guard who's really quick. She showed her quickness last year against us and got to the hole on us a bunch. They've also got a good supporting cast, decent size and they run a lot of good things."
Schweyen says her team is excited to get back on the floor after last week's home loss to Seattle University. The Lady Griz have been working hard on their shooting, intent on improving on their average of 36.9 percent per game.
To put that number in perspective, Weber State and Idaho State, to two most consistent shooting teams in the Big Sky, are shooting 44 percent on average.
"We've been spending a lot of time shooting in practice, more than we have before," Schweyen said.
"It's been hard with our morning time slot. We didn't have time on the back end of practice to stay and shoot a lot because kids were headed off to class. We were kind of crammed in there. We've had a lot more time as of late."
Henderson, for one, is looking forward to playing the Battlin' Bears.
"I pretty much grew up (in Rocky Mountain’s gym)," said the junior, whose dad, Brian, coached the Rocky women for 13 years before resigning in 2014. "I remember looking up to those Rocky girls and wanting to become a college basketball player. I think that helped me get to where I am now."
NOTES: Henderson had career highs in points (15) and rebounds (13) against Seattle last week for her first career double-double ... Rocky is shooting 43.7 percent as a team ... Montana has struggled from behind the arc, shooting 23.9 percent ... Rocky's only loss came at Providence (formerly known as Great Falls).