“I’m certainly proud of how we played the game tonight. We had some crucial turnovers and defensive errors down the stretch which closed the gap very quickly,” stated SUU head coach JR Payne. “But as a whole we played really hard tonight, I’m proud of our effort.”
Southern Utah fell behind 11-3 early on as Torry Hill put up five quick points to put Montana out in front. Lori Parkinson responded by scoring eight for the Thunderbirds, including a pair of three point plays, to bring SUU back within two.
The Grizzlies increased the margin back to six with a couple of scores, but a 7-0 run gave the T-Birds their first lead of the night. Mandelko scored five straight during the rally, hitting a baseline jumper before connecting on her first 3-pointer, to put her team up 18-17.
Montana went back in front on a runner by Hill, but Desiree Jackson evened the score at the foul line and Mandelko dropped in two more threes to put the T-Birds ahead, 29-24. She added two more free throws in the final minute for what would be Southern Utah’s final points of the half. The Grizzlies battled back to take a 33-31 advantage into the locker rooms as McCalle Feller knocked down a shot from the outside with time running out.
Mandelko recorded 17 points in the half after putting up 20 points in the final period of the opening round matchup against Sacramento State. Parkinson added another ten for the Thunderbirds while Hill led UM with 11. The Griz started 0-8 from 3-point territory prior to Feller’s buzzer-beater.
SUU saw the deficit grow again in the opening moments of the second half before using an 8-2 run to retake the lead on a driving layup by Andrea Jones. Mandelko added another basket to increase the advantage to three at 43-40.
Montana hung around with a couple of layups from Kellie Cole, but Brenna Gates dropped in two scores to keep Southern Utah up and Mandelko got into the key for a floater to set the margin at 49-44.
The Thunderbirds worked the ball inside to Carli Moreland to create some space with a layup and Mandelko knocked down her fourth three of the contest to help push the lead to ten and added another step-back three to make it 62-49 with under eight minutes remaining.
The Griz narrowed the margin with five straight points, then added five more after a free throw from Moreland to trail by just four inside the four-minute mark. Two foul shots for Kayleigh Valley had them down by just one and Hill connected on a three to give the lead back to Montana at 66-64.
The difference grew to six with 27 seconds left after four straight free throws from Cole. Mandelko brought SUU back within two with her sixth 3-pointer of the night, but Montana added two more at the line to set the final count at 73-69.
Southern Utah shot 40.7 percent from the field overall to the Grizzlies mark of 45.1 percent. The Thunderbirds went 6-13 from the outside, but just 59.4 percent at the foul line. Each team collected 37 rebounds, and UM turned the ball over 19 times while SUU had 20 miscues.
Parkinson posted 12 points and six rebounds, Moreland turned in eight points and seven boards and Gates contributed seven points and nine rebounds off the bench. Hill scored 22 for the Griz and Sullivan came up with ten rebounds.
“We have always said to win a championship in the Big Sky you have to go through Montana, they have won so many,” commented Payne. “We have played so well lately. It is a minor setback, it’s just disappointing that it had to come tonight. I am beyond proud of the way this team has evolved, not just from winning ball games, but the way they play together.”
Montana advances to face North Dakota in the tournament final on Saturday at 2:00 p.m. (MT), while Southern Utah waits to see if it receives a postseason tournament invitation this Monday. Announcement information will be available online at www.suutbirds.com.