By Bruce Sayler
Montana Western, ranked 24th nationally in NAIA, was already leading, but an injury to a most important Montana Tech player widened the Bulldogs’ door opening to victory Thursday evening.
Montana Western beat the Orediggers 83-65 in the Montana Tech HPER Complex, denying the home team a late, almost miraculous comeback, to begin the Frontier Conference portion of the women’s basketball schedule for both schools. (Stats)
The Bulldogs’ 16-13 edge had been tightened to 16-15 by a Mollie Peoples scoop shot on a runner into the key for Montana Tech. Jenni Weber canned a 3-point basket to grow Montana Western’s advantage 19-15 before the injury occurred. Oredigger 6-foot-1 senior center Brooke Heggie drove into the paint and went down after a collision. She didn’t get back up, leaving the court only with help and not putting pressure on an injured leg. It was early in the game, 35 seconds left in the first quarter. Heggie returned to the bench on crutches and wearing an orthopedic boot.
“The injury didn’t help,” Montana Tech head coach Carly Sanon agreed. “Also, they shot the ball really well – 50 percent from the field, 38 percent from 3-point and 90 percent from the free throw line. That’s hard to beat.”
Montana Western led 22-17 after a quarter and used an early-second frame burst to put up a 49-31 dominance by halftime.
Bulldog post Brynley Fitzgerald, a former Montana State player, wound up leading all scorers with 23 points.
Sanon said Heggie is expected to miss at least “a couple of weeks,” with a further look at the injury by medical staff to be taken.
“That’s our leading scorer we’re missing,” the coach, said adding that Heggie’s defense on Fitzgerald, Montana Western’s best player, was also gone from the game. “It messed with our rotation, we had to change some things up and we got out of it a little bit for a while.”
Ally Cleverly pulled Montana Tech closer, 22-19, a jumper from just inside the 3-point arc starting the second period, The Bulldogs, though, went on a 9-0 run with Fitzgerald, Mesa King, Jayden Winslow and Lilly Gopher all scoring. Heggie’s backup, Celestina “Mia” Faletoi, sparked a comeback to 31-23 and 34-25 before Weber buried a 3-pointer, Sydney Sheridan tallied on a drive and Fitzgerald nailed a 3-pointer in an 8-0 Montana Western run on the way to the 49-31 halftime command.
The Bulldogs’ further dominance in the third quarter, however, failed to deter the Orediggers, who concocted a fierce rally in the last frame to almost storm back into the game.
Fitzgerald’s personal 10-3 run against Montana Tech in the third quarter spread the difference to 65-40. A basket by Madison Allen for the Orediggers made it a 65-42 game before Montana Western closed the frame with a six-point splurge on the efforts of Gopher, Fitzgerald and Montana transfer Joelnell Momberg.
“Our shooters didn’t hit in the first half,” Sanon said. “They normally hit those shots and I’m sure it will be different next time from what it was for them tonight, I’m sure.”
The Orediggers found themselves in the last quarter and blitzed the Bulldogs 23-5 the first half of the last period. Tavia Rooney, finishing with 15 points and 10 rebounds, and Dani Urick, three treys in the game on the way to 13 points, led the comeback. Peoples started it with a basket from 12 feet, then Allen scored similarly after a pass from Aubrie Rademacher. Winslow scored for the Bulldogs, but it was an interruption and not a damper on the surge.
Peoples scored again and Urick netted a pair of free throws. Rooney and Urick combined for the next six and Rademacher dropped in two charity tosses. All eyes were on the clock.
Urick caged two more freebies and the gap had narrowed to 73-60 with 4 minutes, 35 seconds left.
King converted a three-point play for Montana Western, then Rooney drilled another 3-pointerr and Rademacher funneled home two free throws. The difference was 76-65 with 2:48 to go.
Coach Lindsay Wooley’s Bulldogs put the brakes on there.
Montana Western didn’t allow any more points to Montana Tech and secured the victory with Fitzgerald muscling in an inside basket, Momberg draining two foul shots and Shainy Mack stretching the stings with a 3-pointer.
“We did a much better job in the second half with our defense, but we had dug ourselves too much of a hole to dig out from,” Sanon said. “In the fourth quarter, we started out really well and were playing better, but we’d dug too much of a hole.’
“Tavia had another double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds, and Dani had three 3s for us while getting 13 points. Now, we have to go to Rocky (Mountain) and get a big win.”
The Orediggers play the Bears in Billings on Saturday.
Peoples and Faletoi finished with eight points apiece for Montana Tech (6-5, 0-1), Allen and Rademacher had seven points each, Heggie managed two points before her injury exit, and McKayla Kloker, Jaden Comings and Soda Rice all also played. Rooney notched two blocks and five steals to go with her double-double.
Montana Western (7-1, 1-0) got 13 points each from Weber and Mack and 10 from Momberg in backing Fitzgerald. Gopher had nine points and four assists, King scored seven, and Sheridan and Winslo wound up with four each. It was the Bulldogs 14th win in 17 games with the Orediggers the past five years.