Chloe Williams, the Big Sky Conference Offensive MVP the last two seasons, scored in the 13th minute and Mallory Taylor made seven saves to lead No. 5 Eastern Washington to a 1-0 victory over No. 4 Montana Wednesday afternoon in the quarterfinals of the Big Sky tournament at Cheney, Wash.
The Eagles (12-4-3), who won their first postseason match in program history and snapped a seven-match losing streak to the Grizzlies, advance to face No. 1 Idaho on Friday afternoon in the semifinals.
In the other semifinal on Friday, No. 2 Sacramento State will face No. 3 Northern Arizona. The Lumberjacks knocked off No. 6 Northern Colorado 2-1 in Wednesday’s opening quarterfinal.
Montana, which lost for the first time since Oct. 2, finishes the season 9-6-5. It is the fourth time in six seasons under coach Mark Plakorus that the Grizzlies have won nine or more matches in a season.
For all the team’s success in 2016 -- wins at Purdue and Denver, a late-season six-match unbeaten streak, multiple Big Sky individual awards -- it will be Wednesday’s result that will most be remembered, at least in the short term.
Montana outshot Eastern Washington 14-7 and put seven shots on goal, one off its season high, but never could score the equalizer after Williams gave the Eagles an early lead.
“This one hurts, because I thought we were the better team the entire game,” said Plakorus. “I thought we controlled the ball, moved it well and created opportunities. It was just that last piece. We didn’t finish our opportunities.”
Williams did, and her goal sent Eastern Washington into the next round.
In the 13th minute the Eagles countered off a Montana set piece. Williams took a cross-field pass in a dangerous spot on the left side but was stood up by Griz senior defender Tess Brenneman -- two-time Offensive MVP vs. two-time first-team All-Big Sky defender.
Williams’ first move was stopped by Brenneman, but the ball bounced back to Williams, who went far post from 15 yards out for her 15th goal of the season.
“We opened up a counter and had a chance to stop it before the ball ever made it to Chloe, but we didn’t,” said Plakorus. “She is a good player and finished the opportunity she had.
“Then they just defended their goal the whole game.”
The Eagles, who lead the Big Sky in scoring, took just five shots the final 77 minutes. But they didn’t need any more than that, because Taylor was posting her seventh shutout of the season.
Montana took 10 second-half shots, Taylor stopped the four that were on goal to preserve the win.
“I thought we were fantastic today. Everything I ever asked them to do, in terms of their effort and how they play and what kind of team we are, they did. The ball just wouldn’t go in the net,” said Plakorus.
“But I’m proud of them. I’m proud of the way they represented our team and the way they represented our school. They were put in a very difficult situation (of having to face a lower-seeded team on its home field) and handled it very well.”
Montana picked up road wins early in the season at Purdue and Denver as part of a 3-0-1 start, the best in program history. The Grizzlies won just once in seven matches midway through the season before finishing on a roll.
A 3-0 home win over Weber State started a 4-0-2 finish to the regular season. The Grizzlies qualified for the tournament last Friday and played their way to the No. 4 seed with a 3-2 overtime win at Eastern Washington just five days ago.
“I’m really proud of the girls for figuring it out and coming together and making a great run at the end of the year. This is the first time we’ve lost in a month, and that’s difficult to do at this level,” said Plakorus, who loses seven seniors off this year’s team.
“They led this team and put us in a position to compete for a championship, and that’s what we try to do every year. That’s what Montana Grizzlies should be doing. To do that, the first thing you have to do is give yourselves an opportunity, and we did that.”