Morales hits six three-pointers as Montana cruises to Big Sky crown

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) -- Mandy Morales' long-range shooting helped Montana get back to the NCAA tournament.

The junior guard scored 24 points, including six 3-pointers, to lead Montana to the Big Sky Conference tournament title with a 101-65 win over Montana State on Saturday.

The Lady Griz (25-6) advanced to the NCAA tournament for the 17th time in school history after a two-year hiatus.

"Two years in a row to win a very tough league and not make it to the dance would have been too bad," said Montana coach Robin Selvig, referring to last season when UM was knocked out in the semifinals by Northern Arizona.

There was no such problem this time around.

Morales followed up a 31-point effort in the semifinals against Portland State, making all six of her 3-point attempts and adding a game-high seven assists. All that, despite a nagging foot injury.

"Really, I didn't feel it that much this game," Morales said. "I'm just really thrilled and proud of our team."

She was selected the tournament MVP and tied a Big Sky tournament record by going 6-for-6 from 3-point range.

"I was pretty surprised when I saw that," Morales said. "I thought I missed one. I guess I was feeling it a little bit, but it's pretty much my team that gets me the ball and sets screens for me. I'm just blessed to be on this team."

Montana's 15 3-pointers against MSU also set a tournament record.

"They shot the lights out in the first half," Montana State coach Tricia Binford said. "They're a difficult team to defend when they're hitting on all cylinders."

Laura Cote, who finished with 16 points, made four 3-pointers while Sonya Rogers added 16 points, including three 3-pointers.

Cote came off the bench to spark a first-half comeback after Montana State jumped to a 16-10 lead. She hit three 3-pointers and Morales hit another to key a 14-3 run. Montana stretched it from there, taking a 49-31 lead into halftime.

"I was just really excited," Cote said. "For it to be my last game [at home], for it to be for a championship, is more than anything I could ask for. It was a perfect ending to our home schedule."

Binford said she had a premonition about Cote going into the game.

"For some reason, that was the kid that I was most nervous about," she said. "It's always the ones coming off the bench that you don't spend as much time on scouting reports even though we had mentioned her."

Johanna Closson scored 15 points and grabbed five rebounds for the Lady Griz, who outrebounded MSU 44-30. Britney Lohman led Montana with eight rebounds.

"I guess I didn't have to be nervous," Selvig said. "I was sick all day long. That's what I told them in the locker room. They really came out and played well. I'm just proud of them."

Krislyn Wallace led the Bobcats (18-13) with 17 points and 12 rebounds. Erica Perry and Rebecca Mercer added 11 points apiece.

"We're really proud of Montana representing us in the NCAAs," Binford said. "Obviously we would have liked to have been that team, but I still feel like the Big Sky Conference is a difficult and competitive conference. We're going to support them next week."