“I am absolutely surprised,” stated SUU head coach JR Payne. “I know we are capable of playing great basketball and any team is capable of struggling shooting-wise, but that Montana team tonight is not the typical Montana team. Part of it was that we defended well and we were pressuring and trying to disrupt them to keep them out of rhythm, but I am surprised by the outcome to be this big.”
The Thunderbirds opened the night with a couple of scores inside as Asheligh Munns found Carli Moreland and Lori Parkinson down low for back-to-back layups. The Grizzlies rallied to go in front 8-4 five minutes in, but a basket by Desiree Jackson and a pair of jumpers from Maylinn Smith helped SUU take the lead with a quick 6-0 run.
The two sides then traded scores before Southern Utah pulled ahead with ten straight points near the five-minute mark. Parkinson started the streak with another score inside and Mandelko added her first 3-pointer of the contest. A fast break layup for Jones and a jumper by Mandelko extended the SUU advantage to 26-15.
Montana narrowed the difference to five with a couple of trips to the foul line for Jordan Sullivan late in the half, but a free throws from Mandelko and a layup by Brenna Gates had the Thunderbirds up by a count of 35-24 heading into the break.
SUU shot over 51 percent from the floor in the early going, scoring 22 points in the paint. The visitors shot just 25.8 percent in the opening period, but held a 25-17 rebounding edge.
Mandelko started the second half with another three, but Kellie Cole answered from the outside on the other end for Montana’s first triple of the night. The T-Birds added to their lead from there after Jones sank a 3-pointer from the wing and Desiree Jackson dropped in a driving layup to make the score 46-28.
Sophomore McCalle Feller knocked down two straight jumpers to bring the Griz back within 15, but another eight straight for SUU made the margin to 57-35 halfway through the closing period. The T-Birds cruised from there as the lead never dipped below 20 on the way to a final margin of 69-49.
The Thunderbirds held Montana to its lowest shooting mark of the season at 26 percent, and the Big Sky’s second-best 3-point shooting team finished just 4-16 from beyond the arc. SUU finished at 46.3 percent from the field and scored 36 points in the paint. Both teams struggled at the foul line as the visitors went 15-25 while the T-Birds made 15-of-23. The Grizzlies outrebounded Southern Utah 45-38.
Moreland turned in 15 points and five rebounds and Parkinson contributed 10 points and eight boards. Feller led the visitors with 10 points and was the only UM player to reach double figures. 11 Thunderbirds saw time on the court, with nine getting into the scorebook.
“We need everybody to be at their best. We talk about you just be the best version of you,” commented Payne. “We want to be hitting on all cylinders at this point in the season.”
Southern Utah’s 18th victory of the year matches the program’s single-season record set in 1988 and matched in 2004. The Thunderbirds came into the game 0-9 all-time against Montana, including an 81-73 defeat in Missoula at the beginning of the month. SUU now sits just a game behind league-leader North Dakota (13-4 BSC) in the race for the regular season crown and opportunity to host the conference tournament.
“We are just on fire, wanting to continue to play,” explained Payne. “We have three regular season games left and just want to be at our best, to execute the way we should be.”
UND visits the Centrum Arena next Thursday to take on the T-Birds, but first SUU will host Montana State this Saturday at 2:00 p.m. Coverage of the games is available online at www.suutbirds.com.