MISSOULA — Jace Henderson's heroics helped the Montana Lady Griz net their biggest win of the season Saturday.
You may even argue it was the biggest win in coach Shannon Schweyen's three-year stint as head basketball coach.
Henderson piled up a career-high 31 points and added 12 rebounds in leading UM to an 82-79 win over Big Sky Conference preseason favorite Idaho at Dahlberg Arena. Montana snapped a three-game skid in improving to 9-7, 4-3 in Big Sky Conference play.
"I thought they played like a desperate team, to be honest with you," said Vandals coach Jon Newlee, who guided his squad to the Big Sky tournament title game last March. "I told our team they're playing harder than we are and I think they did.
"They did a great job obviously of cramming the ball down our throat in the paint and Henderson finished. Then I thought (Sammy) Fatkin was an X Factor for them (with 19 points), making shots she hasn't made all year."
How special was Henderson's performance? Prior to Saturday, the senior post from Billings had never scored more than 18 points in a game.
"I was proud of her for making all those count in there," Schweyen said. "It's not always easy when you're getting tired and you're getting pounded down there in the post and they're physical."
Going into the game, it would have been easy for Montana to feel hexed because the injury bug has hit it hard for the third season in a row. Looking down the Lady Griz bench, four talented guards were in street clothes, including Taylor Goligoski, Katie Mayhue, Sophia Stiles and Madi Schoening.
All five of Montana's starters played 34 minutes or more Saturday, including point guard McKenzie Johnston at 40 minutes and Henderson at 38. The Lady Griz are down to one scholarship guard at their disposal off the bench, that being true freshman Jordyn Schweyen.
But what the Lady Griz lacked in depth and 3-point shooting prowess — Idaho made 14 triples — they made up for with grit and a 44-24 edge in points in the paint.
"We were both barely standing up at the end and it was just a matter of who was going to get some stops down the stretch," coach Schweyen said. "(Idaho guard Taylor) Pierce is something else. I kept telling people, you've got to come watch these girls. But we had enough good ones down the stretch and we had a stud of our own in Jace."
For all of her scoring heroics, it was a defensive play by Henderson that set her team up for victory with the score tied at 73-73 and just over a minute remaining. Vandals guard Mikayla Ferenz fielded a pass in the paint and was in position for a layup when Henderson came over quickly and caught Pierce off guard, forcing a turnover on a travelling call.
Henderson cashed in with a 3-point play after a slick jump hook with 1:11 left. Then after she grabbed a defensive rebound off a missed three, Johnston hit a pair of foul shots to give the Lady Griz a 78-73 lead with 41.3 ticks left.
Pierce hit a long 3-ball to pull the visitors within two at 78-76 but Montana made four of six free throws down the stretch to earn the win.
"My team worked their tails off," said Henderson, whose squad shot 48.4 percent from the field (31 for 64). "I'm proud of every single girl and the energy we brought. We were mentally prepared for this game.
"That's a great basketball team we played. I think this is a credit to our team and shows we're serious and here to play the Big Sky as tough as we can."
Fatkin, who had never scored more than seven points in a game prior to Saturday, described her first start in a Lady Griz uniform as "amazing."
"We just played so well today together and it felt great," she said. "We came out with energy and great team ball. Having kids injured sucks, but I think the greatest part is coming together and playing for them."
Montana's next five games will all be on the road. The team does not play at home again until Valentine's Day.