Lady Griz sweep Eastern Washington for fifth straight win

Photo by Bridget Mayfield, EWU Athletics

Editor's note: This is a release from the University of Montana. 

Sophia Stiles and the Lady Griz were not going to be denied, not on this day.

In a one-point game midway through the fourth quarter on the road at Eastern Washington on Saturday afternoon, Stiles and her teammates took charge with an 8-0 run and held on for a 65-62 win, the team's fifth straight.

"I remember saying in one of our timeouts, 'This is our game.' I didn't want another one to slip away like we did against Portland State," Stiles said, referring to Montana's 61-60 loss to the Vikings on Feb. 4, or the last time the Lady Griz lost a game.

"I definitely made a conscious effort to try to make something happen."

In another of Montana's physical battles with the Eagles, Stiles scored eight points in the fourth quarter, 11 in the second half on 2-of-2 shooting from the arc and you're-not-going-to-stop-me drives to the basket.

"Sophie had a look in her eye. She said in the huddle, 'We're not going to lose this game.' She said it and then she went and did it," said coach Mike Petrino. "She refused to let this team lose this game."

Of course nobody does it single-handedly, not when there are nine other players on the court and not against a team as physical as Eastern Washington, when nothing comes easily.

It was Abby Anderson who scored after the Eagles had cut Montana's lead to one, 53-52 with 5:01 to play. Then Stiles finished a driving layup.

Then Anderson blocked a shot at one end and scored at the other. Then she hit two free throws. What had been a tight game was now a 61-52 Montana lead with two minutes to play.

Anderson scored eight in the fourth quarter, as Stiles did, and had 12 in the second half.

"Abby, again, was big down the stretch," said Petrino. "I'm just really proud of the kids. This was a great team win.

"As much as we struggled on offense, I'm proud of how we kept battling on the road and squeaked this one out."

There he goes again, Petrino as truth-speaker. Indeed, nothing came easy for the Lady Griz, particularly on the offense end, despite ultimately ending up just shy of their season scoring average.

Montana was 4 for 17 in the first quarter with eight turnovers, yet still led 20-19 at the first break thanks to three early 3-pointers and 10 trips to the free throw line, where it made nine.

For as tough as the Eagles are, the Lady Griz matched it this time around.

"They are physical, physical, physical," said Stiles. "Especially with our posts, who obviously we love to go to and work through. That makes it difficult."

It did, just as it did on Thursday in Montana's 65-53 win in Missoula.

Nearly all the first-quarter numbers were ugly and pointed toward a loss, except this one: Of the 23 rebounds in the opening 10 minutes, Montana grabbed a ridiculous 17 of them, eight on the offensive end.

A team can shoot a poor percentage, but if it gets more shots than the other team, that can balance the numbers out. Which is how Montana won despite shooting 32.3 percent and giving up 12 3-pointers.

The final margin on the boards: Montana 48, Eastern Washington 31, with only six of those coming on the offensive end. The Eagles hit those dozen 3-pointers but only had five second-chance points all afternoon. They were largely one-and-done.

"I thought our kids played physical with them. I think we grew this week in toughness. We got tougher this weekend. We needed that," said Petrino.

Montana won by 12 on Thursday because it limited Eastern Washington to five 3-pointers. On Saturday, the Eagles had two before the game was 45 seconds old. It was an uh-oh moment.

"We talked all week about their three-ball. And dang it, they lit it up from the very beginning," said Petrino. "That was a preview of what was to come. They did a good job of it.

"We had a good defensive effort, except guarding the three. But we got stops when we needed them."

If Stiles and Anderson played the role of closer, it was Gfeller who set them up. Give her the award for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama.

Montana was just 4 for 14 in the second quarter, 25.8 percent for the first half, but was still ahead by three at the break, 30-27.

That was courtesy of Gfeller, who made half of Montana's first-half baskets and had 12 points as the teams went to their locker rooms. That included a pair of 3-pointers.

The player, so critical to Montana's fortunes as the season approaches March, the one who had gone 6 for 24 the previous three games, was back.

"Carmen was great, especially the first half. She got great touches and made good decisions with it," said Petrino.

Eastern Washington took a 45-43 lead into the fourth quarter after going 4 for 8 from the arc in the third period.

At that point, Montana was 13 for 51, or 25.5 percent. The Lady Griz were likely done, unless someone took hold of a game that was slipping away.

Stiles did. Her and-one drive to the basket broke a 45-45 tie and gave Montana a lead it would never relinquish.

Her 3-pointer from a few feet beyond the men's line at Reese Court made it 53-47.

The team that had been struggling offensively went 8 for 14 in the fourth quarter. Not even Eastern Washington's 3-point shooting was going to keep up with that.

This was a game Montana went out and won, which is not how all victories come about, just the most satisfying.

"There was a key stretch in the fourth quarter when we got stops and scores. That helped us separate a little bit," said Petrino.

"We didn't have our best shooting night, but this resilient group came through and got the job done."

Anderson finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds, her third double-double in seven games. The 13 rebounds were a career high, her two blocks a matter of routine.

Stiles had 13 points, six rebounds, five steals, which matched her career high. Gfeller finished with 14 points and eight rebounds, Madi Schoening six rebounds, leaving her one shy of 500 for her career.

Now comes the challenge of the season. Two at home next week against Idaho State, which sits atop the Big Sky, then two on the road at Idaho, which is in second place.

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