Lady Griz vs. Grand Canyon 02

Montana seniors McKenzie Johnston (32) and Emma Stockholm (44) will lead their team into the Big Sky Conference tournament Tuesday afternoon in Boise, Idaho. Johnston, who was named to first team all-league honors Monday, has made a huge impression on Missoula both on and off the court.

BOISE, Idaho — McKenzie Johnston is the pied piper of Montana athletics.

Not only do children look up to the leader of the Lady Griz basketball team, she makes it worth their while.

"We joke all the time about her rock star status with all the little girls in Missoula," said Montana women's basketball coach Shannon Schweyen, who will lead her team into a Big Sky Conference tourney quarterfinal against Northern Arizona Tuesday at 2:15 p.m. at CenturyLink Arena.

"I can’t think of a better role model than her for some of these young Lady Griz wannabes. She just really connects with kids. And she’s one heck of a dancer. Songs come on and she’s leading the dance party and every dance that comes out, the Macarena, whatever, she can do 'em all."

Johnston's platform as a western Montana sports hero means the world to her. She uses it every chance she gets, trying to make a positive impact.

"The way the kids look up to you and just they’re in awe when they get to hang out with you, then getting close to families ... it’s just been so much fun," said the Helena Capital grad, who on Monday was named first team all-conference.

"A lot of the girls don’t have older sisters and they call me their older sister. I’ve never had a younger sister, just a younger brother, so that's been a lot of fun for me."

It's hard to quantify just what Johnston has meant to the Montana women's basketball program the past four years.

She was the rock when so much around her was crumbling for an injury-riddled 7-23 Montana team in 2016-17. She was the positive light the past two seasons, which also ended in losing records.

With uncanny endurance and the heart of a lioness, she has led the Lady Griz (17-12) past their rocky stretch. Her reward is a place in history as one of the greatest to ever take the court for Montana, ranking eighth in program history in scoring (1,380) and fifth in assists (509).

“I’ve had people tell me she’s their favorite guard in the league,” Schweyen said. “I think people appreciate kids who are blue-collar workers, and that’s McKenzie.

“We’ve been through a lot together, some tough things and tough times. Through it all she’s been an incredibly steady leader.”

Make that steady, hard-nosed and hungry. Johnston is not happy just being an all-time great for Montana, she wants that ultimate prize. The one Schweyen and Mandy Morales and so many Lady Griz have relished over the past four-plus decades: A trip to the Big Dance.

"We’ve been away from the tradition a little bit and I’m just doing whatever I can to get back to that winning tradition," she said.

"Ever since I was a kid I wanted to play in March Madness. That’s been my ultimate goal. I’ve just been trying to do whatever I can. Game-to-game my role is going to change. I’ve just been accepting that. But the ultimate goal is just to play at March Madness."

The scary part is that Johnston is down to one last chance. One last shot at an NCAA tournament bid, which can only be earned by winning the title this week in Boise. It's a matter of putting everything together, starting Tuesday with a duel against an NAU team Montana has already beaten twice.

If things go well against the Lumberjacks, regular-season champion Montana State will likely be waiting for a Wednesday semifinal. That will be an uphill climb, but Johnston and the Lady Griz are optimistic about their prospects.

"The locker room, it’s different this year compared to what it’s been in the past, the excitement," said Johnston, who is leaning toward a career in occupational therapy. "We’ve talked about how this year we get to control how the game turns out. In the past we might not have been as talented. This year we’re talented enough to win it all. We have a great chance."

Certainly no other team in the tournament has more experience than Montana. And no team is playing with more confidence, although the Lady Griz did have their three-game win streak spoiled by Southern Utah Friday in an overtime slugfest.

Schweyen's message to her team Tuesday will be simple: Why not us?

"We had some tough losses this year. With those I kept reminding them, think of how Portland State felt at the end of last season," the coach said, alluding to the fact the Viks won the Big Sky tourney title last March despite going in with six league losses.

"It really comes down to these last three games at the tournament. That’s when you have to show up and be at your best. We can still do everything we wanted to do."

Regardless of what happens, Johnston's legacy is firmly in place at Montana.

"She’s just a winner," Schweyen marveled. "My kids competed against her in high school and I’ll never forget watching her once at the state volleyball tournament. She absolutely took over the match. She was going to make sure her team didn’t lose. She was knocking people out of the way on serve receive to make sure they got a good pass to the setter.

"It carries over into everything she does. She’s extremely competitive. I read something her mom put on Facebook, something like, 'Anybody that has seen you play knows you give 110 percent all the time.' It really sums her up in my book. You watch video and her little legs will be going a million miles an hour."

It's when those "little legs" aren't going fast that Johnston has made perhaps an even bigger mark on her adopted home of Missoula. When the final buzzer sounds and the fans have long since forgotten the score, it's the human connection that will endure and mean more in life.

Johnston might be the best Lady Griz of all time when it comes to connecting with Montana fans of all ages.

"Just after games, seeing the kids run up to you and hug you, that makes it all worth it," she said.

Bill Speltz is Missoulian Sports Editor and has served as Sunday columnist the past 14 years. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at bill.speltz@missoulian.com.

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