MISSOULA — For the second consecutive match, Montana fell in a five-set heartbreaker Thursday, losing to Portland State, 25-23, 22-25, 24-26, 25-18, 15-4.
The Vikings improved to 6-1 in Big Sky Conference play and have now won six consecutive matches.
The Vikings rank 26th nationally for digs (first in the Big Sky) but Montana out-dug Portland State, becoming the first team to do so since UCLA on Sept. 3, the fourth match of the season. For comparison, the Vikings entered the match averaging 12.7 more digs than their opponents. Senior libero Sarina Moreno, a Sentinel grad, had 22 digs, one of three Grizzlies in double figures.
The Grizzlies also hit .221 against the Big Sky's top defense, the highest percentage and only team to out-hit Portland State during its six-match winning streak.
"I was super impressed and proud of how we came out," UM coach Allison Lawrence said. "We put a ton of service pressure on them in ways that made them pretty predictable to defend against and containable defensively. You're seeing Elsa (Godwin) and Jackie (Howell) start to take off defensively, and Sarina is having the best season of her career."
Lawrence credited Montana's service pressure, which often took Portland State out of system and led to strong defense.
Another part of Montana's success was its ability to once again get production from both its left and right pins.
One match after right-side attacker Catie Semadeni set a career high with 16 kills, the junior surpassed that total again, with 19 on .500 hitting (19-2-34). She became the first Montana player since 2007 to record at least 19 kills and hit .500 or better in a match (Lauren Gustafson).
In her third match at outside hitter, after converting from setter, freshman Paige Clark was again a force on the left. She finished the match with a career-best 23 kills, the most ever by a Grizzly freshman during the 25-point scoring era (since 2008). She has led Montana for kills in each of the past three matches and has 44 kills in the past two matches alone. Clark also added three aces on Thursday.
"To look at some of our numbers, I think it shows how physical we are offensively and how our hitters are managing their individual games and getting smarter match to match," Lawrence said.
"For Catie, a bunch of her swings were out of system, against the top defensive team, so to score like that takes a ton of work in practice. She's really becoming a playmaker. Paige is so terminal, and that's what we needed."
After dropping the first set, 25-23, Montana bounced back to win the next two. In those two set victories, the Grizzlies recorded 21 kills in each set, accounting for 82.3 percent of their scoring.
But it was the first set that left the Grizzlies reflecting on after the match. The first set featured six tie scores and five lead changes, but Montana had a great chance to take the early advantage, going on top 23-22 on a Semadeni kill before surrendering the final three points of the set.
The Grizzlies out-hit (.200 to .161) and out-blocked (4.5 to 0.0) the Vikings in the set loss.
Montana then jumped out to a 4-0 lead in Set 2 and never trailed, hitting .260. The third set featured 12 tie scores, but Montana was on top for the majority of it, including 22-18 when Portland State used its final timeout. The Vikings scored six of the next seven points to take a 24-23 lead and hold set point, before Montana responded with the next three points to win the set and go in front 2-1.
Through three sets, Montana was dominant in nearly every facet. The Grizzlies had recorded 18 more kills than the Vikings (53 to 35) and were hitting .244 against the league's top defense, as well as out-digging the Vikings.
After never trailing in the second set and falling behind by just two points in the third, Portland State jumped out to an early lead in the fourth set. The Grizzlies used their first timeout trailing 13-7 and their second after being doubled up, 18-9. The Vikings hit .351 in the third set, winning 25-18.
That sent Montana to a second consecutive fifth-set match, but after playing so strong during its first five fifth sets of the season, the Grizzlies were on their heels from the start on Thursday. Portland State scored the first six points in the fifth set, an insurmountable deficit to overcome in a shortened set.
The Vikings out-hit Montana .692 (9-0-13) to -.083 (3-4-12) in the final frame. After Montana held Portland State to .217 hitting through three sets, the Vikings hit a combined .440 over the final two sets.
"Portland State is a well-coached team and they're on a roll right now," Lawrence said. "They're near the top of the conference for a reason, and when they got in rhythm they were firing."
After a tough start to its Big Sky slate, Montana has started to play cleaner over the past three matches – a win at Idaho and pair of five-set defeats. The Grizzlies will have another opportunity on Saturday night vs. Sacramento State. Discounted tickets for the match are available online, and during the match Montana will celebrate more than a dozen former players who will be back for Alumni Weekend.
"I'm really impressed with how our team responded from last week," Lawrence said. "The loss to Eastern was devastating but we got back in the gym and were the aggressors against a really good team.
"We were a better team last week than we were two weeks ago, and we're a better team now than we were last week, and that's the big picture. This team's biggest strength is its ability to continue to learn and grind and add more to our game."