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Lady Griz look for turnaround in conference home-opener vs. Idaho

GoGriz.com

The Montana women’s basketball team will look to snap a four-game losing streak this week when it hosts Idaho and Eastern Washington at Dahlberg Arena in its first Big Sky Conference home games.

The Lady Griz will play the Vandals at 7 p.m. on Thursday, the Eagles on Saturday at 2 p.m.

At a glance (Montana): The Lady Griz are 3-10 overall and 0-2 in league after losing on the road last week at Idaho State, 61-43, and Weber State, 74-58, their first time losing both ends of that trip. Montana has lost four in a row and its last eight against Division I opponents.

At a glance (Idaho): The Vandals, ranked first in two reputable pre-league power polls, are 5-7, 0-1 in league after losing their Big Sky opener on Saturday at Eastern Washington, 67-57. Idaho shot 5 for 29 in the first half and was unable to come back from a 22-point deficit.

At a glance (Eastern Washington): The Eagles (6-6, 1-0 BSC) put an end to a three-game losing streak with their 67-57 win over the Vandals on Saturday. Senior Ashli Payne had a 21-point, 14-rebound performance to earn co-Big Sky Player of the Week honors on Tuesday.

Coverage: Both games this week will air on KMPT 930 AM in the Missoula area, with Tom Stage and Dick Slater. The audio stream will be available through the All Access page at GoGriz.com, video through WatchBigSky.com.

Promotions: The first 500 fans without a ticket to Thursday’s game will receive free general admission. Saturday is Education Appreciation Day. UM faculty and staff, plus family members, get in free with a Griz Card. Local teachers and school personnel also get in free with a valid school ID.

This week’s hot topics:

* Offense continues to be an issue for Montana. The Lady Griz shot 32.0 percent in their loss at Idaho State, their seventh time this season failing to break 50 points, and 32.8 percent at Weber State.

On its eight-game losing streak to Division I opponents, Montana has not shot better than 34 percent in any of those games. The Lady Griz are still stuck in the low 30s (.322) for the season and are scoring just 52.1 points per game. Both figures rank last in the Big Sky and in the bottom 15 in the nation.

“Obviously our Achilles heel has been our scoring,” said UM coach Shannon Schweyen. “We’ve been working on cleaning up our plays, which will hopefully give us a better chance to make some shots around the basket.

“We’ve really evaluated our film to see if we’re getting good shots, and I feel like we are. We just have to have some kids shoot with more confidence and knock them down when we do get them.”

Without the services of Kayleigh Valley, Alycia Sims and Mekayla Isaak, the team’s post scoring has dropped off this season, not unexpectedly. What’s hurt Montana is that its 3-point shooting has been off as well.

Since making a season-high 10 triples against Cal State Fullerton, Montana has made just 20 the last seven games on 18.0 percent shooting. The Lady Griz have gone 6 for 50 the last four games and went 1 for 20 in two games on the road last week.

The team’s 0-for-10 effort at Idaho State was its first time going without a 3-pointer since going the same 0 for 10 in a 60-49 victory over Northern Colorado in the championship game of the 2015 Big Sky tournament in Missoula.

* Junior forward Mekayla Isaak, who broke her hand against Utah State in the championship game of the Lady Griz Classic, is expected to make her return to the court this week. Through the season’s first five games, Isaak averaged 5.6 points and a team-high 8.8 rebounds.

“We’re hopeful she’ll be cleared to go,” said Schweyen. “She’ll be a great addition to have back.

“She is one of our best, if not the best, defenders, and she is a great rebounder and passer. And just her overall leadership on the floor of having experience and being someone who has actually gotten some minutes in the past will be exciting to get back.”

* Back to the team’s offense: Montana has seen a precipitous drop in its assist numbers. After getting credited with 10 or more in six of the season’s first seven games, with a season-high 16 in the season-opening win over Great Falls, the Lady Griz have been at nine or fewer the last six games.

That is just one less than the previous two seasons combined. Montana had just two assists on 16 made field goals at Idaho State, six on 21 made field goals at Weber State.

The Lady Griz are assisting on just over half of their baskets this season (51.3 percent), down from 62.6 the previous five seasons.

There are different reasons for that:

1) Taylor Goligoski, the team’s leading scorer, has been successful creating her own shots.

2) Montana does not have much of a post presence, and field goals in the paint frequently come off an entry pass that is worthy of an assist.

3) The Lady Griz, with 61 more than their opponents, are a strong offensive rebounding team (though part of that is because Montana has missed 93 more shots than its opponents, which leads to more opportunities). Those rebounds tend to lead to unassisted put-backs if they lead to a score.

“Taylor creates a lot of her own shots off the dribble, and we’re missing a lot of shots around the basket, where normally someone is getting an assist on the other end,” said Schweyen. “There are often four or five assists a game that people would be getting if we could be making those shots.

* Do we need to be worried that with all these offensive struggles and all this losing that the team is getting beaten down? That’s not close to being the case, says Schweyen.

“They are not happy with losing, and we want to see that out of them. We don’t want them to be satisfied where they’re at,” she says. “It’s easy to stick together when things are going great. It’s a testament to a team to be able to stick together when you’re losing, and this team has done that.

“I really feel like they’re moving forward and getting better. As coaches, that’s all we can ask of them, that they give us their all and play their hardest every time they step on the floor.”

* Neither Idaho nor Eastern Washington has enjoyed much success on its trips to Montana.

The Lady Griz are 25-1 against the Vandals in Missoula. Idaho’s lone win came during the 1984-85 season and was a 78-76 squeaker. Montana has won the last 21 meetings, with 18 of those being by 10 or more points.

Montana is 42-4 at home against Eastern Washington, though half of those wins in Missoula for the Eagles have come since the 2010-11 season. In the teams’ last matchup in Missoula, Montana won 55-51 in the semifinals of the 2015 Big Sky tournament.

* Ninth-year Idaho coach Jon Newlee has never defeated Montana at Dahlberg Arena. He went 0-8 when he was coaching at Idaho State and is 0-5 at Idaho.

He has won games, however, at the facility. Big ones. His Idaho State team picked up a win over Weber State in the semifinals of the 2007 Big Sky tournament, and the Bengals took down Northern Arizona, which defeated Montana in the semifinals, in the championship game to make the NCAA Tournament.

* Hey, look who’s atop the Southland Conference! It’s Incarnate Word! After opening the season 0-9, which included a 61-56 loss to Montana in the Lady Griz Classic, the Cardinals went into league with nonconference home wins over LSU-Alexandria and Texas A&M-Kingsville.

Incarnate Word opened Southland play with road wins at Nicholls, 78-52, and Southeastern Louisiana, 85-76. The Cardinals sit atop the standings at 2-0 with Stephen F. Austin, which is 11-2 overall. That includes a 54-46 win over Montana in a game that feels like it was months ago, not Dec. 10.

* Remember when Montana had to play South Dakota State without Big Sky Conference Preseason Player of the Year Kayleigh Valley? Unfortunately the Jackrabbits now know what it’s like.

Junior guard Macy Miller, the Summit League Preseason Player of the Year, suffered a season-ending knee injury against Wisconsin-Green Bay last month. SDSU is 3-3 since her injury.

* Winning against Montana at Dahlberg Arena must be good for a team’s mojo. Since defeating the Lady Griz back on Dec. 18, Wyoming has handed then No. 15 Colorado its first loss of the year, then opened Mountain West Conference play with wins over Air Force and UNLV, the former on the road.

* Make room for Idaho State radio play-by-play guy Mark Liptak on the McKenzie Johnston bandwagon. Liptak twice commented on Johnston’s competitiveness and fight during Thursday’s broadcast, then emailed the Montana women’s basketball SID after the game to repeat his take on Johnston.

He also mentioned how Taylor Goligoski‘s game, when combined with Kayleigh Valley‘s next season, might be scary. In other words, enjoy any wins over Montana while you can get them.

* Three things to know about Idaho:

1) Jon Newlee-coached teams have always loved the 3-point shot. This one is no different. The Vandals make nearly 10 per game (9.7), the fifth-best average in the nation. In last year’s matchup, a 78-61 Idaho victory at Moscow, the Vandals went 13 for 30 from the arc.

2) Idaho is getting outrebounded by seven boards per game, but a lot of that was going -38 in a loss at Washington, and -22 and -21 against Oregon State and UNLV in games played in Hawaii in early December.

3) Players to note: Sophomore Mikayla Ferenz leads the team in scoring (16.1/g), junior Geraldine McCorkell (14.2/g) was voted preseason All-Big Sky and senior Karlee Wilson (2.4 assist-to-turnover ratio) is one of the league’s top point guards.

“Idaho is a very talented team,” said Schweyen. “Offensively they can score it up. They’ve got a lot of balance. They are extremely difficult to guard because they spread you out, and they’ve got great 3-point shooters.

“They have an experienced point guard and a good post scorer in McCorkell, and Jon does a great job defensively as well. We’re going to be in for a battle.

History: Montana leads the series 41-9, 25-1 in games in Missoula. Idaho won last year’s matchup 78-61 behind 16 points from McCorkell and those 13 3-pointers. Kayleigh Valley had 22 points for Montana.

* Three things to know about Eastern Washington:

1) With the retirement of Robin Selvig last summer, 16th-year Eagles coach Wendy Schuller is now the most veteran coach in the league.

2) Junior forward Delaney Hodgins leads the Big Sky in scoring (18.6). She is the younger sister of Hayley Hodgins, who graduated from EWU last year with 1,865 career points. The youngest Hodgins sister, Braydey is a freshman at Boise State, which is 12-1 and tied atop the Mountain West standings.

3) The Eagles, at 42.9 percent, are one of the Big Sky’s top shooting teams. But it was defensively where Eastern won Saturday’s game against Idaho. EWU went on a 22-0 run that spanned the second and third quarters. The Vandals closed out the first half with 16 straight missed shots.

History: Montana leads the series 71-18, 42-4 at Missoula. Eastern Washington won last year’s matchup in Cheney 67-65 when Delaney Hodgins rebounded her older sister’s missed shot and scored on a put-back with 0.9 seconds left. The Hodgins combined for 42 points. Valley had 19 for the Lady Griz.

Lady Griz three-dot notes: Montana’s last four opponents have all averaged 1.0 point per possession or more. That’s something the Lady Griz have done just once this season (1.05 vs. Incarnate Word). … Montana is 0-10 when shooting less than 35 percent this season. That’s problem for a team shooting 32.2 percent. … Rachel Staudacher‘s starts on the road last week were the first of her career. … Sierra Anderson broke her nose against Idaho State. Her availability for this week’s games is up in the air. … McKenzie Johnston has grabbed six or more rebounds in each of the last four games. … In Montana’s 10 losses, its opponents are shooting 44.7 percent. … For the first time in maybe forever, playing at home hasn’t provided an answer. Montana is averaging 54.8 points at Dahlberg Arena this season on 35.0 percent shooting. … A happy shooting note(!): Montana went 15 for 19 (.789) from the line at Weber State, the team’s best percentage in a game this season when taking more than 10 attempts. … Stephen F. Austin is the only opponent this season to out-offensive rebound Montana. … Last week’s opponents had 27 assists to Montana’s eight. … The Lady Griz have blocked one shot the last three games. … Against its last eight Division I opponents, Montana’s largest lead has been three points.

Around the Big Sky Conference: Northern Colorado and North Dakota, which hosted Portland State and Sacramento State last week, are tied atop the league standings at 2-0, along with Idaho State, which swept the Montana schools in Pocatello. … Eastern Washington and Northern Arizona, which won in overtime at Southern Utah on Saturday, also are unbeaten. … Sharing Big Sky Player of the Week honors with Eastern Washington’s Ashli Payne was Northern Colorado’s Savannah Scott, who averaged 17.0 points and 11.0 assists in home wins over Sacramento State and Portland State. The Bears rallied back from a 49-40 halftime deficit in Thursday’s 95-88 win over the Hornets, then drilled the Vikings on Saturday, 91-62. Seven players scored eight or more points, and UNC shot 48.6 percent.

Thursday in the Big Sky: UI at UM, EWU at MSU, UNC at SUU, UND at NAU

Non-Montana game to monitor: North Dakota at Northern Arizona. The 2-0 Fighting Hawks test the Lumberjacks, who are a lot better than anybody thought they’d be this season.

Saturday in the Big Sky: EWU at UM, UI at MSU, UND at SUU, UNC at NAU, ISU at WSU, PSU at SAC

Non-Montana game to monitor: Portland State at Sacramento State. The Big Sky’s best shooting team (PSU) against a team allowing more than 93 points per game (SAC). Last year’s results: 132-91 and 126-78, both in favor of the Hornets. The Vikings to have since narrowed that gap.

Upcoming: Montana goes next week on the unfriendly Northern Colorado-North Dakota road trip.