From the onset it was obvious the Montana women's basketball team meant business in its matinee game Thursday at Eastern Washington.
McKenzie Johnston racked up 14 points in a dominant first half and the Lady Griz rolled to a 77-56 win in front of a Kids Day crowd of 3,106 at Reese Court in Cheney, Washington. Montana moved to 7-5 in Big Sky Conference play, 12-9 overall.
"We really slapped some defense on today," Montana coach Shannon Schweyen told KMPT radio. "It was a good moment to see all those ladies working as one unit. They were certainly in sync and knew what our game plan was and did a heck of a job."
Johnston was the catalyst. The senior point guard from Helena just missed a triple-double with 22 points, nine assists and eight rebounds.
She moved past Kenzie De Boer into 13th place on the all-time scoring list for the Lady Griz with 1,278 points. She needs just 13 in Saturday's home game against Idaho to catch Kellie (Cole) Rubel.
"She did a little bit of everything," Schweyen said. "It's nice to see her shooting the three good (4 for 6). They made it tough to get a lot of threes for other people but it's always a great help when your point guard is feeling it."
Determined to turn things around after a heartbreaking overtime loss to Montana State on Saturday in Missoula, the Lady Griz set the tone early against the Eagles (1-10, 2-18). Johnston had nine points on 4-for-5 shooting and Montana hit 10 of 19 shots as a team in building a 28-18 lead in the first quarter.
Eastern never recovered in dropping its 10th game in a row. The Eagles turned the ball over 16 times to seven for the Lady Griz and Eastern shot just 36.5 percent from the field (19 for 52) against Montana's hustling man defense.
"They've been making so many threes and they love all the loops and on-ball (screens)," Schweyen noted. "It's challenging for our bigs to get out on those actions and they did a real nice job."
Montana beat Eastern Washington by 38 points back in January but expected a tougher test Thursday since the Eagles were without point guard Jessica McDowell-White (stress fracture) and center Bella Cravens (funeral) in their first meeting. As it turned out, their presence didn't make a lot of difference.
Schweyen was especially pleased with the way her team shared the ball.
"I mean, 24 assists on 29 field goals, that's what this team has been doing this year and I love the way they're working together," the coach said. "They're fired up in that locker room. Our intensity was just so good for 40 minutes today. It was just difficult for (EWU) to get any easy ones. It's just awesome to see them pull it out in that fashion."
Joining Johnston in double figures scoring for Montana were post Abby Anderson with 15 points and forward Emma Stockholm with 12. Sophia Stiles had eight assists, four points and four rebounds.
"Our passing and catching was good against the zone," Schweyen said. "That was huge to give ourselves all those extra possessions.
"We knew it was going to be a physical game when our radio commentator bites it getting out of the hotel," the coach added playfully. "It's not very often you look across and see your color guy icing his ankle before the game."
Schweyen was referring to longtime Lady Griz radio personality Dick Slater. He slipped on the ice travelling with the team en route to Cheney. Slater was in good spirits as he filled his familiar role during the game and he, along with everyone else in the Montana entourage, is looking forward to Saturday's home showdown with league powerhouse Idaho.
"If we can play with this kind of intensity, I love our chances against anybody," Schweyen said.