MISSOULA — There was more than one cat-and-mouse game going on Saturday afternoon at Dahlberg Arena.
One was far less noticeable than the other. Both were fascinating.
There was the one 3,000-plus fans came to see that ended with the Montana women's basketball team outlasting Sacramento State, 75-67. Then there was the one going on in Lady Griz coach Shannon Schweyen's head.
She had a couple of important objectives:
Certainly she wanted a second-straight win that would give her team momentum heading into its Big Sky Conference tourney opener vs. Southern Utah on Monday night in Boise, Idaho. Just as important, she wanted to conserve the energy of her starters and get quality time for her ever-improving bench.
In the end, she accomplished both objectives. But like most things in life, it was complicated and a little messy.
"You can just never relax with Sacramento State because they score in such a hurry," said Schweyen, whose team built a 15-point lead early in the second quarter, then found itself locked in a 32-32 tie at halftime.
"I thought our bench did good when they got in there early. But I was hoping I could play them more."
Schweyen looked to her starters in the third quarter, hoping they could recapture the momentum lost when the Lady Griz went deep into their bench in the second period and went 3 for 15 from the floor. Those starters — junior guard McKenzie Johnston and senior post Jace Henderson in particular — delivered in impressive fashion.
Johnston and Henderson combined for 17 of Montana's 24 points in the period as Montana regained control, 56-47. Johnston scored half of her co-game-high 18 points and Henderson added eight of her co-game-high 18.
"I think our defense in the first half, we were leaving people wide open and things like that," said Johnston, who just missed a double-double in grabbing a game-high nine rebounds. "The second half we knew who we were guarding and that helped us."
Teammate Gabi Harrington, who also came close to a double-double with 10 points and eight rebounds, was a little more detailed in her analysis of the middle quarters.
"Coach (Schweyen) was getting upset because in transition, I know one of them was my fault, we let them shoot some threes and get open looks," she said of the second quarter. "That's what brought them back. Then in the third quarter we focused in on contesting their shots."
Sac State, which has lost five games in a row and eight of its last 10, kept things interesting in the fourth quarter thanks to 7-for-10 shooting. The Hornets (10-18) shaved their deficit to 69-63 with 1:38 left on a 3-ball by freshman Milee Enger.
But Montana's leaders, Johnston and Henderson, delivered again. Johnston pulled down a critical offensive rebound with just over a minute left and Henderson hit a bucket to stretch the Lady Griz lead to 71-63.
Sac State crept back within six once again with 49.4 seconds left before Harrington and Sammy Fatkin iced the game, each hitting a pair of free throws.
"We hadn't seen a lot of trapping and things like that, so late when they were picking up the pace, I thought we did a really nice job taking care of the ball," Schweyen said. "We ended up with seven turnovers. That's probably our season low."
Montana (14-15) ended up seventh in the Big Sky and Sacramento State ninth. Both teams finished up the regular season with respectable shooting performances, with the Lady Griz hitting 44.4 percent of their attempts from the field (32 for 72) and the Hornets 44.2 percent (23 for 52).
Schweyen said she was proud of the way her team responded this past week after dropping its fourth game in a row Monday night at Northern Arizona.
"Jace (Henderson) just said it in the locker room, 'After NAU I know we were all feeling down and frustrated and we wanted to get back on track,'" Schweyen offered. "It's great for the team to head into the tournament with two good wins and hopefully we're as fresh as we can possibly be when we get there."