The Montana soccer team took a season-high 26 shots and needed every last one of them to finally get past North Dakota Friday afternoon at South Campus Stadium in Missoula.
Hallie Widner redirected a cross from McKenzie Warren in the ninth minute of the first overtime to give the Grizzlies a 1-0 victory over a stubborn Fighting Hawks team that got outshot 26-3.
The win not only keeps Montana (8-5-4, 4-2-2 BSC), which has lost just once in its last seven matches, in the hunt for the Big Sky Conference tournament, after a wild day across the league on Friday, the Grizzlies might be eyeing an even bigger prize than just getting in.
Montana moved into a third-place tie with Eastern Washington (10-3-3, 4-2-2 BSC), which lost 3-2 at home to Northern Colorado on Friday. The Grizzlies and Eagles are three points behind Big Sky leaders Idaho (8-4-4, 5-1-2 BSC) and Sacramento State (7-6-4, 5-2-2 BSC).
The Hornets have only one match remaining, the other teams have two. When Montana finishes its regular season next Friday at Eastern Washington, the teams may be playing for a No. 2 seed and an opening-round bye in the tournament.
And the Grizzlies wouldn’t be in that discussion had they not finally solved the Fighting Hawks.
North Dakota goalkeeper Olivia Swenson, who beat Montana 2-1 last season in Grand Forks, made six saves, and her teammates blocked 10 more shots in front of her that may have made it to goal had they gotten through.
“Like I say all the time, from top to bottom we have good teams in this conference and good coaches who prepare their teams to play, and that team was prepared to play against us,” said coach Mark Plakorus.
The last time Montana took 26 shots in a match was in 2014, at home against North Dakota. That match ended with the Grizzlies winning 7-0.
“They defended very, very well, and their goalkeeper is very good. She’s got great hands and doesn’t give up rebounds. You have to beat her to beat her, because they aren’t going to give you goals.”
And that’s what Montana finally did. Warren, who has been involved in the Grizzlies’ last three goals after scoring twice in their 2-0 victory at Southern Utah on Sunday, beat a North Dakota defender to the end line to the left of the goal late in the first overtime.
Her cross into the box got past Swenson, and Widner was there to put home the game-winner in an open net, her first goal since Aug. 26. After 26 shots, Montana finally had its victory.
“The thing I’m really proud of is that this team didn’t get down on itself,” said Plakorus. “We kept believing and fighting. We kept our heads up and kept getting ready for the next opportunity.
“I’m really proud of the team to fight through and get the win.”
Montana was favored against last-place North Dakota (2-12-2, 1-7-0 BSC), but the first half proved to be an augur of what was to come.
The Grizzlies outshot the Fighting Hawks 9-0, but the teams went to the locker room tied. Only two of Montana’s first-half shots were on goal.
“I thought the first half we played a little bit tentatively,” said Plakorus, whose team took 17 shots the rest of the match.
“I thought we played very aggressively and were attacking really well in the second half and overtime. We had plenty of opportunities. They just weren’t going in.”
The first 20 minutes of the second half felt like Montana was playing with an extra attacker, so much was the ball within 35 yards of the North Dakota goal. Montana would surge toward goal, North Dakota would thwart the attack, and the Grizzlies would regroup and do it again.
The block of time was best summed up in one play.
Warren put a shot off the crossbar in the 63rd minute, and the rebound found Ashlee Pedersen. Her good look was snubbed out by Swenson, a bold, aggressive goalkeeper with flypaper hands who made 98 minutes of solid plays, especially on dangerous crosses, to keep the match scoreless.
Widner’s goal at 98:20 was the 11th of her career, her third game-winner, and moves her ahead of Warren by one for the team lead in points with 11.
Goalkeeper Kailey Norman, back after missing both matches of last week’s road trip to Northern Arizona and Southern Utah, needed to make just a single save for her 23rd career shutout.
Montana will host Northern Colorado (9-7-1, 4-4-0 BSC) at noon on Sunday at South Campus Stadium in a match that will have tournament implications for both teams.
The Bears are one of three teams tied for fifth in the Big Sky standings, two points behind Eastern Washington and Montana.
In other matches on Friday, Southern Utah had a surprising 3-0 win at Idaho State, Northern Arizona played to a 2-2 draw at Idaho, and Sacramento State won 1-0 at home over Weber State.
Updated Big Sky standings:
Idaho -- 5-1-2 (17)
Sacramento State -- 5-2-2 (17)
Eastern Washington -- 4-2-2 (14)
Montana -- 4-2-2 (14)
Northern Colorado -- 4-4-0 (12)
Idaho State -- 4-4-0 (12)
Northern Arizona -- 3-2-3 (12)
Portland State -- 3-4-1 (10)
Weber State -- 3-5-1 (10)
Southern Utah -- 2-5-1 (7)
North Dakota -- 1-7-0 (3)