Montana teammates celebrate defeating Northern Colorado in an NCAA college basketball game in the Championship of Big Sky Conference tournament in Missoula, Mont., Saturday, March 14, 2015. (AP Photos/Michael Albans)
AP Photo
March 14, 2015

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) Northern Colorado held a healthy 13-point lead over Montana in the first half of the Big Sky Conference women's championship game on Saturday.

But after a 20-4 run in the second half and an unlikely hero in senior Maggie Rickman, Montana became Big Sky champions for the 17th time, beating the Bears 60-49 in Dahlberg Arena.

Rickman scored 20 points for the Lady Griz, 18 in the second half, to earn Montana its 21st berth into the NCAA Tournament. Big Sky co-MVP Kellie Rubel added 14 points for Montana.

''Unbelievable game,'' Montana coach Robin Selvig said. ''I thought they were pretty dominant in the first half, we were having a hard time. I was wondering how we were going to turn it around in the second half.''

Montana struggled mightily to shoot the ball, going 8 of 31 from the field and 0 of 7 from 3-point range. The Lady Griz didn't make a 3-pointer all game.

''I've always said (the 3-pointer) is a big part of our offense, but we just proved we don't need it,'' Selvig said. ''We didn't get a lot of good looks at the 3 either, they played pretty good all-around D.''

D'Shara Strange had 23 points for Northern Colorado (20-12). She was named to the all-tournament team along with Rickman and Rubel.

The Bears had four blocked shots and shot 50 percent from the field to take a 29-16 halftime lead.

Montana barely avoided tying the record for fewest points in a half of a Big Sky tournament game. The record is 14, set by Montana State last year.

Montana's defense improved with the start of the second half. The Lady Griz recorded five straight defensive stops to open the period, but only converted points on two.

''I don't think they changed much up, I know our offense just kind of stalled a little bit,'' said Northern Colorado's Stephanie Lee.

Only Strange, the co-MVP, had success offensively in the second half for the Bears. Each time Montana got going in the first 10 minutes, she'd halt the momentum, either with a layup and a foul or a steal.

But with just under 10 minutes to play, Rubel hit a jumper from the top of the key that brought Montana within six points.

Three minutes later, Montana had the game tied at 43 after a 14-2 run, capped by a block by Rubel and a coast-to-coast layup.

Rickman had 12 points to finish a 20-4 run, and the Lady Griz lead 51-46 with three minutes left.

''Our defense finally picked up in the second half, and we finally started getting baskets,'' Rickman said of the Lady Griz, who shot 54 percent in the second half.

The hometown fans helped late in the game.

''It's extremely hard, when they get momentum and the crowd starts getting into it,'' Strange said. ''It's hard to hear plays, hard to hear the shot clock running down, it's just very difficult.''

UNC coach Kamie Ethridge said Montana won because of its presence down low.

''They just really took it to us on the offensive boards and in the paint,'' she said.

TIP-INS

The win Saturday improved Montana's Big Sky tournament record at home to 31-1.

UNC's Strange and Stephanie Lee are both juniors and will be back next year.

UP NEXT

Montana: Awaits seeding in the NCAA Tournament, which will be announced Monday.

UNC: Will pursue a WNIT bid.

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