CEDAR CITY, Utah — The battle for second place in the Big Sky Conference turned out to be a statement game for Southern Utah, which used the opportunity to send a league-wide message that the Thunderbirds might be the top team in the conference.
Southern Utah, which won for the ninth time in its last 11 games, broke away from a tight game early, shot 46.3 percent and never gave Montana a chance to rally, winning 69-49 in a matchup between the two teams that had been tied for second in the Big Sky standings behind North Dakota. UM-SUU stats
The Thunderbirds (18-8, 12-5 BSC), who won for the first time in 10 meetings against the Lady Griz, pulled within a game of UND (18-8, 13-4, BSC), which plays at Portland State and Eastern Washington this week before ending its season next Thursday at Southern Utah.
Montana (17-9, 11-6 BSC) dropped a full two games behind North Dakota and one behind Southern Utah with three regular-season games remaining.
The Lady Griz were within one, 16-15, midway through the first half Wednesday night, but the final 30 minutes belonged to the Thunderbirds.
Southern Utah built a 34-25 halftime lead, then opened the second half on a 12-3 run to blow the game open. Montana shot 25.0 percent in the second half and 25.4 percent for the game, which prevented the Lady Griz from coming up with any sort of response.
“It’s just an ugly game when nobody’s making shots, and absolutely nobody made shots. It was unbelievable,” UM coach Robin Selvig said. “Pretty much if you come in here and shoot 25 percent, you’re going to get beat by 20, and that’s what we did.”
When Montana fell behind 46-28, the 18-point deficit was its largest of the season to that point. The Southern Utah lead twice reached a game-high 25 points in the second half.
“That’s the first game this year and the first game in a while that we weren’t in it, but I guess that happens from time to time to most everybody,” Selvig said. “But whether we lost by one or by 20, it’s one game in the standings.”
The offensive struggles by Montana’s starters were too much for the Lady Griz to overcome. Those five, who are the team’s five leading scorers, combined for just six field goals and 19 points and shot 16.2 percent (6 for 37).
Montana did out-board one of the Big Sky’s top rebounding teams, 45-38, but it made little difference. Its season-high 21 offensive rebounds resulted in a mere 13 second-chance points because of the team’s shooting woes.
“I didn’t think we were playing that poorly in the first half, but nobody could make a shot,” Selvig said, “and it’s a difficult game when you can’t score.”
And yet the Lady Griz were within one, 16-15, when Maggie Rickman scored in the paint at the 9:05 mark and within five, 28-23, after two free throws by Jordan Sullivan with 2:24 remaining in the opening half.
Four straight points by Hailey Mandelko, who finished with a game-high 18 points and 45 against the Lady Griz in the teams’ two meetings this season, sparked the Thunderbirds to a nine-point halftime lead.
Montana needed a 12-3 run to open the second half, but it was Southern Utah, which scored 36 points in the paint, the most allowed by the Lady Griz this season during league play, that pulled it off, and that spurt removed any drama from the outcome.
“We were defending okay and still in the game at the half, but we started out the second half the same way we finished the first half, and they put together some nice runs,” Selvig said.
McCalle Feller scored 10 points in 23 minutes off the bench to lead Montana, which turned the ball over 17 times.
SUU’s Carli Moreland and Lori Parkinson joined Mandelko in double figures with 15 and 10 points.
Montana doesn’t play again until Monday night, when the Lady Griz face Montana State in Bozeman. The Bobcats (13-12, 8-8 BSC) play at Southern Utah Saturday afternoon.
Thursday’s schedule features Idaho State at Northern Arizona, Northern Colorado at Eastern Washington, North Dakota at Portland State and Weber State at Sacramento State.
— Montana Sports Information