The University of Montana women's basketball team--slow of foot but stout of heart--Sunday afternoon made USC forget how it got to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
The Grizzlies slowed the mighty engine that is the Trojan offense and forced USC into a more pedestrian pace. That was the first half.
In the second half, the Trojans kick-started themselves and went on to beat the Grizzlies easily, 81-50, in front of 857 fans in the Sports Arena.
The win advances No. 3 USC (28-4) to the West Regional, where they will face the University of North Carolina Thursday at the Long Beach Arena. The Trojans are top-seeded in the West and the Tar Heels are seeded fourth.
Montana, the Mountain West Conference champion, ends its season at 27-4.
The Grizzlies came into the game as a team USC Coach Linda Sharp had termed "not very tall and not real fast." True. But Montana has the nation's top-rated defense, allowing only 52.9 points a game.
Montana also has a half-court offense that frayed USC's nerves with its deliberate, plodding pace. Look elsewhere than USC for patience. With the Grizzlies setting the tempo at s-l-o-o-o-o-w, the Trojans were off kilter.
USC held a shaky 31-27 lead at halftime.
"I knew that they were a slow-tempo team," Sharp said. "Montana was definitely prepared for our pressure offense. I was not real happy with our shot selection. We had different players trying to do it alone."
USC was playing without top scorer Cheryl Miller. Miller broke the ring finger of her left hand in practice last week. Sharp said it could be examined by a doctor Tuesday, and a decision would be made then if Miller would play in the regionals.
The Trojans squandered several large leads in the first half but did force the Grizzlies to shoot almost exclusively from the perimeter.
Montana's inability to penetrate underneath left it with just two points early in the game; that came with 16:32 remaining and from 17 feet.
The Grizzlies scored on layups only twice in the first half.
USC held a 10-2 lead, then allowed Montana to score two baskets to make it 10-6.
USC jumped to a 22-12 lead with 9:40 left in the half, but then Marti Leibenguth, Montana's leading scorer, woke the Grizzlies' offense. The 6-1 forward scored five of her team's seven points in a three-minute stretch in which the Trojans were unable to score.
"Marti started hitting some," Montana Coach Robin Selvig said. "USC had a spurt; they started hitting layups. I thought, 'Uh oh,' but then we answered."
USC still held a precarious 22-19 lead with 6:40 remaining, and the Grizzlies continued to have success with their half-court offense.
The score was 31-27 at the half--not only was it a smaller lead than USC is accustomed to, but the low score was way off USC's pace. The Trojans are second in the nation in scoring offense, averaging 89.3 points a game.
Sharp did not like what she saw in the first half and promptly told her players so.
"I told them that we had to use better shot selection and be more patient," she said. " 'Patience, patience, patience,' I kept telling them. They were funneling us inside. We talked about where we could get post shots."
Something worked. USC came out aggressively in the second half. The Trojans scored 11 straight points in the first four minutes. It wasn't until Cheryl Brandell scored on a layup with 15:58 left that Montana got going.
By then, however, USC had returned to its fast pace and left the Grizzlies behind.
"We had a letdown in the second half," Selvig said. "We let them get a few quick baskets and some steals, and we let down."
USC played well defensively, forcing 17 Montana turnovers to the Trojans' 12 and grabbing 11 steals to the Grizzlies' 4.
In Miller's absence, USC had balanced scoring. Cynthia Cooper lead the Trojans with pin-point shooting. The senior guard was 6 of 8 from the floor and 7 of 8 from the line for a game-high 19 points.
Rhonda Windham had 14 points, and Karon Howell and Cherie Nelson each scored 12 points.
Leibenguth led the Grizzlies with 13 points and 5 rebounds.