Montana overcame a 13-point deficit with seven minutes to go and 34 points from Hailey Mandelko to post a 73-69 come-from-behind victory over Southern Utah Friday night in the semifinals of the Big Sky Conference women’s basketball tournament at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center in Grand Forks, N.D. UM-SUU stats
Up two midway through the second half, Southern Utah (22-9) scored 11 straight points to take a 62-49 lead and put itself within sight of the Big Sky championship game. And that may have been the worst thing to happen to the Thunderbirds.
Southern Utah committed six turnovers and scored just one basket the final seven minutes. At the same time, Montana (22-9) kept its poise and looked like a team that had been there before.
Senior Torry Hill, a former Anaconda Copperhead, and freshman Kayleigh Valley, who is using the tournament as her personal coming out party, combined to score 15 straight points for the Lady Griz, and Montana went on a shocking 21-2 run that sent the Lady Griz into Saturday’s championship game against top seed North Dakota.
UND (21-9) advanced to the title game Friday afternoon with an easy 78-53 victory over Idaho State.
“We preach all the time that it’s a 40-minute game, so I was never thinking we were out of it,” said UM coach Robin Selvig. “Obviously we had to start making some plays when we got down, so we just started plugging away.”
The first key play started out looking anything but. Sophomore Hannah Doran shot what turned out to be a fortuitous air ball on a 3-pointer from the left wing. Valley chased it out of bounds, saved it to Hill, and the senior’s 3-pointer made it 62-54 and gave the first breath of life to a possible comeback.
Also helping Montana’s cause: Southern Utah’s decision to keep pressing with the lead. The Lady Griz had 13 first-half turnovers against the Thunderbirds’ pressure, but just six in the second half and none in the final seven minutes.
Valley scored two semi-transition baskets and seven of Montana’s nine points during one stretch, and her two free throws with 1:39 remaining cut SUU’s lead to 64-63.
Southern Utah has a strong inside game to balance Mandelko’s perimeter-based attack, and the Thunderbirds did the right thing on their next possession. They worked it inside to Lori Parkinson.
Against most teams that’s either two points or a trip to the foul line, which was just what SUU needed to stop the bleeding. Against Montana and Carly Selvig, it was a blocked shot.
Valley grabbed the rebound, and Hill’s three at the other end with 1:11 left — for Montana, the shot of the game — gave the Lady Griz their first lead since the 15:30 mark of the second half.
Mandelko challenged Selvig on Southern Utah’s next possession, and once again Selvig was there to deflect the shot. It gave Montana the rebound and gave Selvig her 88th block of the season, a total that matches Hollie Tyler’s single-season record from 2004-05.
Junior Kellie Cole hit a pair of free throws with 33 second left to make it 68-64.
While Selvig dominated the air space in the final minutes, Valley worked the floor.
To save precious time on the clock following Cole’s free throws, SUU’s Desiree Jackson allowed the inbounds pass to roll up the court, untouched. But she got greedy, and Valley made a play that should be submitted to Sportscenter for some sort of top-10 list.
She dove for the ball near midcourt and not only got possession before Jackson, she got it to Cole, who was fouled, and her free throws with 27 seconds left made it 70-64 and capped the 21-2 run that was the final blow to the shell-shocked Thunderbirds , who lost for just the second time in their last 12 games.
Mandelko hit a three with four seconds left to make it 71-69, but Valley made like an upperclassman at the other end and hit two free throws with three seconds left that sealed the victory.
“What a great win for this group,” Selvig said. “Southern Utah has been really good down the stretch, so I figured this was going to be a battle. It was going to be a tough one for somebody to lose, because the difference wasn’t much.
“It was a physical battle, and we ended up the last person standing.”
For the second straight night Montana, which knocked off Montana State 75-66 Thursday in the quarterfinals, got out to a fast start. The Lady Griz built an early 11-2 lead, but that was before Mandelko got rolling.
She was scoreless eight minutes into the game. By the time the half arrived, she had 17 and scored all but one of SUU’s points over the final 11:14.
A late 3-pointer by McCalle Feller allowed Montana to take a 33-31 lead to the locker room.
The teams went back and forth early in the second half, and a three by Cole, who scored 11 of her 13 points in the second frame, brought the Lady Griz within two, 51-49.
That brought on the start of Southern Utah’s 11-point run, which was later trumped by Montana’s decisive ending to the game.
Hill played all 40 minutes and scored 22 points on 7-of-11 shooting. She added four assists and three steals.
Valley had nine points, Selvig finished with 8 points, 5 rebounds and 5 blocks, and Jordan Sullivan totaled 8 points and 10 rebounds.
Mandelko’s 34 points were hardly out of character for the first-team All-Big Sky selection, especially against the Lady Griz. In three meetings against Montana this season, Mandelko scored 79 points (26.3/g) and went 15 for 28 from 3-point range.
“We did not have an answer for her tonight, but I also don’t think we defended her poorly either, and she still had 34,” Selvig said. “She is difficult to guard. I’m glad we don’t have to deal with her again until next season.”
On Saturday Montana will face a North Dakota team that is 13-1 at home this season and has both a tradition of postseason success and fan following to rival the Lady Griz.
“I’m glad they are going to have a crowd and an atmosphere, because that’s the type of game we play for,” Selvig said. “This is what it should be. It’s going to be a fun college basketball atmosphere.”
Montana and North Dakota tip off at 2 p.m. (MT), with the winner advancing to the NCAA tournament.
— Montana Sports Information