RENO, Nev. — Buried by an avalanche of 3-point goals, the Montana women's basketball team spend most of Wednesday afternoon trying to dig out.
Northern Colorado's first 27 points came on triples, leaving the Lady Griz with a 14-point deficit after 13 minutes. Montana refused to go away quietly but never caught the Bears in a season-ending 78-69 loss in the quarterfinal round of the Big Sky Conference tourney.
Northern Colorado, the league's regular-season champion, advanced to play Idaho State in a semifinal Friday. Montana finished with a 14-17 record.
"They were hitting threes left and right on us in man and zone," UM coach Shannon Schweyen said of the Bears' 9-for-15 start from behind the arc. "We thought we'd take a look at the zone first. Jace (Henderson's) ankle, we thought maybe it would be a good way for her to ease into the game a little bit and not be having to immediately be out on the perimeter closing people out.
"... A little bit of that is you're going to be hoping that they miss some shots and unfortunately they made them."
Take away the first 13 minutes and Montana beat Northern Colorado (24-6) in virtually every category, including scoring and rebounding. But each time the Bears saw their lead slipping away — the Lady Griz drew within six with just under five minutes left in the half and eight in the waning stages — Northern Colorado calmly answered on the offensive end.
"We had a few too many turnovers in the first half," said Schweyen, whose team had nine before intermission and totaled 13. "We settled down in the second half, took much better care of the ball. But that's a good basketball team ... They give up size but boy do they make up for it with quickness."
Northern Colorado coach Kamie Ethridge said she was surprised Montana came out in a zone defense considering her team is so dangerous from 3-point range. But whether it's zone or man, the Bears' ball movement is so good that it's hard to prevent open looks.
Montana countered with a strong inside game and drives to the hoop by McKenzie Johnston, who finished with a game-high 23 points. Teammates Catilin Lonergan and Henderson both flirted with a double-double, with the former collecting 18 points and nine rebounds and the latter 11 points and nine boards.
But Northern Colorado's 12-3 edge in 3-point goals made all the difference.
"Montana is gritty, tough, and some of the things they do really well we don't guard very well," Ethridge said. "We should have had a bigger lead at half (43-27). But you know how Montana is going to play and compete."
Montana trailed by double digits for most of the second half. The Lady Griz did finally cut the deficit to eight points, but by then there were only 33 seconds remaining.
Northern Colorado enjoyed impressive scoring balance. League MVP Savannah Smith led the way with 21 points, followed by Savannah Scott with 16, Tiarna Clark 14 and Kianna Williams 11.
With tears in her eyes, Schweyen talked glowingly about the fight in this year's Lady Griz team.
"This is a group that this season has had some of the most amazing comebacks that I've ever been around," she said. " ... I could never count this crew out and sure enough, even though we struggled offensively, we found ways to get back in the game.
"It certainly hurt us today not having Nora Klick (back injury). That was one more perimeter sub. We were down to one perimeter sub for the 1, 2 and 3 spots. That's certainly a factor when you're guarding a team like this."
The Lady Griz will lose just one senior from this season's active roster, forward Mekayla Isaak. Standout senior forward Kayleigh Valley has not yet said whether she will return for the 2018-19 season.
Whether she does or not, Montana is going to be loaded with experience and talent next season. Joining returning starters Henderson, Johnston, Taylor Goligoski and Madi Schoening are, among others, Lonergan, Sophia Stiles, Hailey Nicholson and a talented incoming freshman class.
"This whole second half of conference with losing Sophia (Stiles), then one by one they kept going down, this whole second half kind of felt like you're bringing a knife to a gunfight," Schweyen said.
"That was seriously the slogan that fit the team. And somehow, some way, these guys fought their way out of it. For us to do what we did this season, I'm incredibly proud. We're still extremely young in the big picture and it's promising what this group accomplished."