MISSOULA — It took an entire half of basketball and some anxious moments, but in the end the team with the championship pedigree finally looked the part.
After falling behind by 15 points in the first half and trailing 29-16 at the break, Montana outscored Northern Colorado 44-20 in the second half to post a 60-49 victory Saturday afternoon in the championship game of the Big Sky Conference women’s basketball tournament at Dahlberg Arena. Stats
Senior guard Kellie Rubel, who had her second double-double of the tournament with 14 points and 11 rebounds, was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. She was joined on the all-tournament team by sophomore forward Kayleigh Valley.
With the win, the Lady Griz (24-8) advance to their 21st NCAA tournament. Montana will learn its first-round opponent Monday at 5 p.m. when ESPN airs the tournament selection show.
That Montana’s name will fill a line of the NCAA bracket seemed far-fetched for most of the first half Saturday.
After falling behind 6-1, Northern Colorado (20-12), which came in on a 10-game winning streak, reeled off 14 straight points and remained in control the rest of the half.
The Bears, who won at Dahlberg Arena last month, shot 50 percent through the first 20 minutes and looked like the team that had been there before.
“I thought they were pretty dominating in the first half,” said UM coach Robin Selvig. “They were running good stuff and making shots. We were having a hard time guarding them. And we weren’t making any shots of our own.”
Indeed. Montana had just 16 points at the break, its lowest-scoring half of the season. For a team that came into the game with a 14-0 record in Big Sky tournament championship games on its home floor, trailing by 13 at the half was new territory.
“You get a great crowd that comes out to watch you play, you don’t want to send them home disappointed,” said Selvig. “At halftime I think (the players) were pretty embarrassed with how we’d done.”
The game’s balance finally started tipping midway through the second half, when baskets by Maggie Rickman, who finished with a team-high 20 points on 9-of-11 shooting, Rubel and Valley finally gave the season-high crowd of 3,811 something to get fired up about.
Montana’s offense finally got rolling, with 31 points in the game’s final 12 minutes, but it was on the defensive end where the Lady Griz won the championship. After going up 41-29 on a D’Shara Strange jumper in the paint, Northern Colorado went more than 11 minutes without a field goal.
That combination — Montana’s suddenly clicking offense and lockdown defense — allowed the Lady Griz to go on an improbable 26-4 run.
“I was worried about being able to come back on them,” said Selvig. “I think the environment helped us. I don’t think they got rattled, but the run we had probably got extended a little more because the crowd was going crazy.”
Two free throws by Valley with 5:28 left gave Montana a 47-45 advantage, its first lead since the opening three minutes of the game.
The game’s next play only extended the lead to four, but felt like the moment that finally crushed Northern Colorado’s spirit.
With the shot clock approaching zero, UNC’s Savannah Scott was forced into a 3-point attempt from the top of the key. Rubel, flying at the shooter from the lane, more spiked the shot than blocked it, and her run-out lay-in put Montana up 49-45.
Valley, twice, and Carly Selvig scored inside on subsequent possessions — 32 of Montana’s 44 second-half points came in the paint — and with two minutes left the Lady Griz led 55-45.
A shell-shocked UNC team, which rallied from 10 down in the second half in its victory in Missoula last month, would offer up no hint of comeback. Kyleigh Hiser’s 3-pointer with 36 seconds left was the Bears’ only basket the final 11:52.
“Somebody flipped a light switch in the second half. What a tale of two halves. It was just day and night on both ends of the floor,” said Selvig, whose team shot 54.5 percent in the second half while limiting Northern Colorado to 21.7.
“Credit the ladies. Instead of being discouraged, they kept saying, let’s get going, and they did get going. Every player out there had the look like we’re not going to be denied. In the second half it looked like we could beat anybody. It was a big-time win to come from behind.”
Montana went without a 3-point field goal for the first time this season, but it hardly mattered. The Lady Griz ripped down 19 offensive rebounds and scored 17 second-chance points, 15 more than Northern Colorado, and finished with a 47-26 rebounding advantage, 28-9 in the second half.
Rickman’s 20 points led Montana, while Rubel and Valley both added 14. It was enough to offset a game-high 23 points from Strange and 11 from Stephanie Lee.
The pair joined Rubel and Valley on the all-tournament team, as did Sacramento State’s Adella Randle-El and Eastern Washington’s Hayley Hodgins.
“I could not be prouder. That’s a heck of a team I’ve got. They found a way to do it,” added Selvig.
First-round games of the NCAA tournament will take place next Friday and Saturday.
Unlike previous years, when predetermined sites were used for first- and second-round games, a new model will be used in 2015. The top 16 teams in the field, as determined by a committee following this weekend’s conference tournaments, will host first- and second-round games.
— Montana Sports Information