Montanan - Volume 14 Number 3
A Fine Season for the Lady Griz Concludes, Koss Departsby Rick Stern
When you've built the sort of consistently successful program that Lady Griz head coach Robin Selvig has at Montana, your teams tend to be remembered not only for their victories, but also for the few losses they've inevitably suffered. Of the twenty-five wins during the Lady Griz' 1996-97 season, what stands out is the heartbreaker: the team's NCAA tournament loss to Texas Tech that ended the spectacular career of forward Greta Koss.
Forward Greta Koss holds up the Big Sky Conference championship trophy for Lady Griz fans.
The Lady Griz earned a trip to the NCAA tournament by winning all sixteen of their conference games and beating Montana State for the Big Sky Conference championship. They traveled to Palo Alto, California, where they faced a Texas Tech team that had won the 1993 NCAA championship after winning the Women's West Regional in Missoula. The Lady Griz fell just short against the Lady Raiders-losing 47-45 as Skyla Sisco barely missed a scoop shot at the buzzer that would have sent the game into overtime.
"Texas Tech is a very good team," said Selvig. "I thought we played really, really well in that game. We didn't need to make many more shots, but we had to make a couple more."
With their offense stifled by the Texas Tech defense, the Lady Griz could have lost their composure, but they managed to stay in the game by carrying with them the lessons of their previous game against Montana State.
In the second half of the Big Sky Conference championship game against the Lady Cats, the Lady Griz had shooting difficulties. The team started the second half with a furious run, extending a one-point half-time lead into an 18-point margin. Then they went cold. Montana State tied the game with a 21-3 run, until the Lady Griz salvaged a 52-49 victory and earned a bid to the NCAA tournament.
"We just started missing shots and they crept back in it," said Koss. " I thought we did a good job to pull it out. Skyla hit some big free throws at the end."
Sisco made the free throws to ice the Montana State game, and she could have extended Montana's season with a shot against Texas Tech. But when people reflect on the 1996-97 season, many of their memories will center around her fellow Malta native, Greta Koss.
"Greta will certainly be remembered as one of the best basketball players to ever play here," said Selvig. The most dominant player of the fourteen Lady Griz, Koss led the team in scoring, rebounds, blocked shots and steals, finishing second to Sisco in assists. For the second year in a row, Koss was named Most Valuable Player of the Big Sky Conference tournament and received all-conference honors.
More than her accomplishments, Koss will be remembered for the example she set. "Greta played every game hard, start to finish, and that's great leadership," said Selvig. "She had big games where she didn't allow an off-shooting game to affect the rest of her game."
Koss was instrumental in the few close games the Lady Griz had in conference play: a 54-51 win over Montana State in Bozeman and a 78-72 overtime victory over Weber State in Ogden. She put forth the same effort when the Lady Griz lost: 73-54 to Utah, 81-70 to thirteenth-ranked Western Kentucky and 72-70 to the University of Portland.
Because of her successful four years on the court for the Lady Griz, the departure of Koss may be Montana's biggest loss of the season. "I don't feel good about losing Greta at all," said Selvig. "She's a great kid and a really great person. We'll definitely miss just having her around."
Grizzlies' Season Ends at NCAAby Rick Stern
Even though the Montana basketball team ended the year with a 92-54 loss to the defending National Champion Kentucky Wildcats in the first round of the NCAA's "big dance," the Grizzlies couldn't have been happier with the season's outcome.
Senior guard Kirk Walker helped steer the Grizzlies to an NCAA tournament appearance.
"I think making it to the NCAA made the season a completely fulfilling and satisfying experience," said Grizzly head coach Blaine Taylor, who led Montana to its fifth twenty-win season and second NCAA appearance of his six-year tenure.
Taylor was neither fulfilled nor satisfied when Montana began its season by losing four of its first seven games. Predicted to win the Big Sky championship in preseason polls, the Grizzlies limped home from their first weekend of conference play after road losses to Idaho State 82-73, and Weber State 104-95. During the Idaho State game, the team lost starting center Brent Smith for the season with a broken foot.
Back home, the Griz found themselves at 0-3 in the conference after losing to Northern Arizona. After a win over Cal State Northridge 76-62, the team hit the road for three games. The season's low point came when, down by 20 points to league newcomer Portland State, they faced the prospect of a 1-4 start in league play. Somehow, Montana rallied to win that game 69-68-the second of a five-game streak that earned the Griz a 5-3 record halfway through league play.
Taylor and the Grizzlies had a much more successful second half. After a second loss to Weber State 72-68, Montana avenged an earlier loss to Idaho State by downing the Bengals 60-58. The Grizzlies survived probably the longest road trip in Big Sky history to defeat Northridge 78-75, but lost again to Northern Arizona 72-69. Then Montana got well again. After beating the Sacramento State Hornets in Missoula 95-51, they finished conference play by beating Portland State 68-57, and Eastern Washington 74-67.
After a disappointing start, the Grizzlies downed Montana State 67-47 to capture second place in the Big Sky Conference, thereby earning a first-round bye in the Big Sky tournament, hosted by regular season champion Northern Arizona.
Even more unlikely was Cal State Northridge's victory over Northern Arizona-in Flagstaff-in the Big Sky tournament semifinals. That occurred the same night as Montana's 81-56 victory over Weber State, setting the stage for a Grizzly-Matador matchup to determine the Big Sky's representative to the NCAA tournament.
Northridge was extremely athletic and led much of the game before the Grizzlies rallied for an 82-79 win. Senior Chris Spoja and junior Ryan Dick were named to the all-tournament team, and Taylor suggested that Dick was slighted when Northridge's Trenton Cross was named the tourney's MVP.
Montana couldn't have succeeded without forwards Dick and Spoja, all-league guards Kirk Walker and J.R. Camel and center Bob Olson-who filled Smith's shoes admirably, if not surprisingly.
Nevertheless, it was not a season where individual accolades mattered as much to the Grizzlies as the success they had in pulling together to overcome a season fraught with obstacles. And even though they were being beaten by the obviously superior athletes of Kentucky, the Grizzlies loved every minute of their chance to share in the national limelight of the NCAA tournament.
"I'm proud of how much we were able to overcome this season," said Taylor. "We lost a league MVP candidate. We dealt with deaths of family members. We had numerous different starters with broken bones or other maladies. All of these things could have derailed our season, but our kids just wouldn't allow it to happen." M
Rick Stern is a freelance writer living, working and playing in Missoula.