By JOEL CARLSON
McCalle Feller scored 28 points, 21 in the second half following a midgame pep talk from her teammates, to lead No. 5 Montana to a 78-63 victory over No. 12 Northern Arizona Monday afternoon at the Reno Events Center in the first round of the Big Sky Conference women’s basketball tournament.
The Lady Griz (20-10), who reached 20 wins for the 31st time in 38 years under coach Robin Selvig, led 33-32 at the half and 51-49 through three quarters before pulling away in the fourth.
Montana advances to face No. 4 North Dakota on Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. (MT) in the quarterfinals.
“I thought this would be a tough game, and it was,” said Selvig, who improved to 45-10 in Big Sky tournament games. “NAU came out and played really well. We finally put a good run on them, and that took the wind out of their sails.”
Feller became the 33rd player in Lady Griz history to reach 1,000 career points, and she broke Sonya Rogers’ single-season 3-point mark, but in the first half it looked like neither would happen and that Montana might be like so many visitors to Reno and go bust, left to head home after just one game.
Feller was 3 for 11 through the first 20 minutes, and Montana’s 37.5 percent shooting had the Lumberjacks within a point and thinking upset. Enter: Feller’s teammates.
“I get a little frustrated with myself, but I got a little talk from my teammates, and they set me straight,” she said. “That cleared my head to make some shots.”
Feller went 5 for 6 in the third quarter, and though the Lady Griz still only led by two entering the fourth, it felt like Montana was on the verge of pulling away. They finally did, going 8 for 14 in the final period.
Feller and Kayleigh Valley, who finished with 23 points and doubled her previous career high with eight assists, combined to score Montana’s first 15 points of the fourth quarter.
“I think we play well together,” said Valley. “We’re kind of a duo that’s tough to stop. We can go inside, or we can go outside. And we have other people to look for as well.”
Though it took Montana more than a half to get on track and start shooting well, its offensive execution was some of its best all year. The team had a season-high 24 assists on 28 field goals and turned the ball over just six times, its second-lowest total of the season.
Montana shot 53.3 percent the second half, picking up assists on 15 of its final 16 made field goals.
“I just don’t think we shot the ball very well the first half,” said Selvig. “The game’s pretty simple sometimes. When you’re making shots, you think you’re great. When you’re not, you’ve got to play through it.”
That’s exactly what Montana had to do in the first half, as Northern Arizona, which lost twice to Montana in the regular season, not only hung around but was getting better looks.
The Lumberjacks led 18-13 two minutes into the second quarter and were running hard-to-stop offense through Big Sky Outstanding Freshman Alyssa Rader, a center with a deft passing touch and range to the 3-point line. But Rader had to sit the final seven minutes of the half with a pair of fouls.
The Lady Griz outscored the Lumberjacks by six the rest of the quarter and used two free throws by Rachel Staudacher with four seconds before the half to take a 33-32 lead to the locker room.
Feller reached 1,000 career points in the third quarter, and her third 3-pointer of the game, with6:28 remaining in the fourth that put the Lady Griz up eight, 59-51, gave her 73 triples for the season, breaking Rogers’ record of 72 from the 2007-08 season.
Less than a minute later she added No. 74 to put Montana up 62-51, and the lead remained 10 or more the rest of the game.
“I thought it was going to be a battle until the end the way it was going, but we got hot,” said Selvig. “The second half we finally got it cooking. That was one of our better halves this year after not shooting the ball very well the first half.”
Alycia Sims had 10 points and 10 rebounds for her eighth double-double of the season, and she had primary defensive responsibilities for Rader, who finished with 18 points but shot just 6 for 16 and had five turnovers.
Haley Vining added nine points and seven assists for Montana.
Next up will be a North Dakota team that swept Montana during the regular season and has won four of the last five meetings between the two teams. The Fighting Hawks, who won 12 of their final 13 games to close out the regular season, won 61-59 at Missoula and 73-61 last Wednesday at Grand Forks.
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