The Montana women’s basketball team will open its 18-game Big Sky Conference schedule this week with road games at Idaho State and Weber State.
The Lady Griz will play the Bengals on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Pocatello, Idaho, and the Wildcats at 2 p.m. on Saturday at Ogden, Utah.
Opening tip: Montana is 3-8 and enters league with just a single Division I victory to its credit. The Lady Griz have wins over NAIA opponents Great Falls and Rocky Mountain, plus a home victory over Incarnate Word. Montana is 0-5 away from Missoula this season.
Idaho State is 6-5 and begins league on a four-game winning streak, which started with a noteworthy win at Wisconsin and continued with home victories over Denver, Montana Tech and Utah Valley. The Bengals, at 4-0, have not lost at Reed Gym this season.
Weber State also is 6-5. The Wildcats opened the year with six wins in their first seven games but go into league on a four-game losing streak. Weber State is 3-2 at the Dee Events Center this season, with losses to Cal State Northridge and Fresno State in its most recent home games.
Coverage: This week’s games will air locally on KMPT 930 AM, with Tom Stage and Dick Slater. Online video coverage is available through WatchBigSky.com.
Montana nonconference notes:
* Montana’s three nonconference wins are the fewest for the Lady Griz going into the conference portion of its schedule since the clean late-December, early January nonconference/conference split of games was first used in 1978-79.
* Montana’s lone Division I win this season came back on Nov. 23 against Incarnate Word, a 61-56 victory on the opening night of the Lady Griz Classic (the day before Thanksgiving). The Cardinals are now 1-9 after picking up their first win of the season last week against LSU-Alexandria.
* Montana’s RPI entering league games is 343 out of the 349 NCAA Division I programs that are ranked. The next lowest Big Sky team is Northern Arizona at 300.
* Because of a series of injuries dating back to early October to Kayleigh Valley, Alycia Sims and Mekayla Isaak, the only three upperclassmen on the team at the start of the season, Montana has used an all-underclassman starting lineup the last six games.
* Underclassmen have accounted for 88.5 percent of the team’s minutes played this season. When the list is narrowed down to true or redshirt freshmen, the number is still high: 61.2 percent of the minutes.
* Montana’s top seven players in points scored are underclassmen. The team’s top four scorers are either freshmen (Madi Schoening, 5.3/g; Gabi Harrington, 5.2/g) or redshirt freshmen (Taylor Goligoski, 12.0/g, McKenzie Johnston, 6.2/g).
* Montana’s biggest struggle this season has been on the offensive end. The Lady Griz rank last in the Big Sky by a wide margin in both scoring (52.4/g) and field goal percentage (.322). Nationally Montana ranks 330th out of 344 teams in scoring, 333rd in field goal percentage.
* Montana is shooting 30.5 percent in its nine games against Division I opponents, 29.2 percent in its five games away from home. … The Lady Griz have averaged more than 1.0 point per possession just once this season, 1.05 against Incarnate Word. … The team’s low offensive numbers have made it hard to come back after falling behind. Montana is 0-7 this season when trailing at the half, 0-8 when trailing with five minutes left.
* Montana’s shooting struggles extend to the free throw line, where the Lady Griz are hitting just 62.2 percent, also last in the Big Sky by a sizeable margin. Montana hasn’t shot lower than 71 percent from the line in a season since 1998-99.
* Since the start of December, the Lady Griz are allowing 60 points per game, and their season average of 62.8 ranks third in the Big Sky. But their field goal percentage defense of .418 ranks 10th. Montana’s scoring defense, while ranking well, is more the result of slow-paced games with fewer possessions.
* Montana has been a solid rebounding team since finishing +25 against Great Falls in its season opener. The Lady Griz are +3.0/game for the season, fifth in the Big Sky, and out-boarded Wyoming (33-31) and Colorado State (41-29) in their last two games.
* Slow starts are proving costly for Montana. In their last two games, at home, the Lady Griz trailed Wyoming 16-8 at the first break, Colorado State by a score of 24-14. Montana has been outscored by 68 points in the first quarter this season, an average early deficit of 6.2 per game, more than half of the team’s average scoring deficit for the season of -10.5.
Montana three-dot notes: The Lady Griz lead the Big Sky in fewest fouls per game at 14.1 and rank 22nd nationally. … Redshirt freshman point guard McKenzie Johnston has led Montana in rebounding this season a team-high four times and is averaging 4.3 for the season. … Mekayla Isaak, who broke her hand against Utah State in the championship game of the Lady Griz Classic, is doubtful to make her return this week. … Sierra Anderson scored a season-high 13 points against Colorado State, going 3 for 7 from 3-point range. … In its eight losses, Montana has shot 29.2 percent while allowing 43.9 percent. … The Lady Griz went 5 for 30 from the arc against Wyoming and Colorado State. … Montana’s largest halftime lead this season is three points, a 34-31 advantage in the season opener against Great Falls. … In its last six games against Division I opponents — Utah State, Cal State Fullerton, Seattle, Stephen F. Austin, Wyoming and Colorado State — Montana has held a lead for a total of less than nine minutes and hasn’t held a lead larger than three points in any of those games. … Montana had a 15-8 advantage in offensive rebounds against taller Colorado State last Wednesday and turned those into a 21-5 advantage in second-chance points.
More on Idaho State: The Bengals went 18-15 last season and tied for eighth in the Big Sky at 8-10. … As the No. 9 seed, ISU won three games at the Big Sky tournament in Reno to become the lowest-seeded team to ever make the championship game. … One in, one out: Sophomore guard Grace Kenyon is back after missing last season with a knee injury. She leads the team in scoring (11.5/g) and rebounding (7.3/g). Senior guard Brooke Blair, who averaged 12.4 points last season, is sitting out the rest of this season after suffering a knee injury just minutes into the team’s season opener at Santa Clara. … ISU coach Seton Sobolewski is 137-122 in his ninth season. … Idaho State was picked to finish sixth in both the coaches’ and media preseason polls.
The No. 1 thing to watch for on Thursday: Montana (.322) ranks last in the Big Sky in shooting, Idaho State (.357) is next to last, and both are historically very good defensively. First team to 50 probably wins.
History: Montana leads the all-time series against Idaho State 70-8 and has won the last eight meetings since the Bengals swept both games in their Big Sky championship season of 2011-12. … Montana is 29-6 in games at Pocatello. … The Lady Griz won the teams’ only meeting last season 62-47 in Missoula behind 23 points and four assists from Kayleigh Valley and 13 points and 10 rebounds from Alycia Sims.
More on Weber State: The Wildcats are coming off a 23-12 season in which they advanced to the championship game of the Women’s Basketball Invitational (not to be confused with the WNIT). … WSU went 11-7 in the Big Sky last winter to finish sixth. Weber defeated Portland State in the opening round of the Big Sky tournament, then lost by three in overtime to eventual champion Idaho in the quarterfinals. … In the WBI, the Wildcats picked up wins over New Mexico, North Dakota and South Carolina-Upstate before falling in double-overtime in the title game on the road at Louisiana-Lafayette. … Coach Bethann Ord is in her sixth season. She has a record of 49-113. … Weber is led in scoring by sophomore guard Emily Drake at 16.0 points per game, up from 9.8 as a freshman. … Senior guard Deeshyra Thomas, last year’s leading scorer and honorable mention All-Big Sky, is averaging 13.9 points.
The No. 1 thing to watch for: Weber State is forcing nearly 20 turnovers per game. Montana hasn’t had that many in a single game this season. How do the Lady Griz handle the pressure?
History: Montana leads the all-time series against Weber State 66-12. The Lady Griz have won the last three meetings, 10 of the last 11 and 16 of the last 18. … Montana is 28-7 in games at Ogden. … The Wildcats’ last win in the series came in 2013-14, a 56-54 win in Ogden. … The teams played just once last year, with Montana winning 84-75 in Missoula. Kayleigh Valley had 31 points and nine rebounds, Alycia Sims added 21 points and 17 rebounds. That’s hard to read with both of them sitting on the bench this year.
This week in the Big Sky Conference:
Thursday games: UM at ISU, MSU at WSU, PSU at UND, SAC at UNC
Non-Montana game to monitor: Montana State at Weber State. In last year’s matchup at Bozeman, the Bobcats won 92-71. Peyton Ferris scored 33 points on 16-of-17 shooting (not a misprint), Riley Nordgaard added 23 points on 9-of-14 shooting as MSU hit 62.3 percent overall.
Saturday games: UM at WSU, MSU at ISU, SAC at UND, PSU at UNC, UI at EWU, NAU at SUU
Non-Montana game to monitor: Idaho at Eastern Washington. The Eagles swept the regular-season series last year, winning 74-66 at Moscow and 84-70 in Cheney. The Vandals got their revenge in the Big Sky tournament semifinals, winning 86-71 after outscoring the Eagles 51-30 in the second half.
Upcoming: Montana will host Idaho and Eastern Washington next week at Dahlberg Arena.