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Lady Griz at home this week: Will they get 1st Big Sky win?

By GoGriz.com

The Montana women’s basketball team, still seeking its first Big Sky Conference win of the season, will continue its three-game home stand this week with games against Southern Utah and Northern Arizona at Dahlberg Arena.

The Lady Griz will face the Thunderbirds at 7 p.m. on Thursday and the Lumberjacks on Saturday at 2 p.m.

Opening tips: Montana (3-19, 0-11 BSC) is on a 13-game losing streak and a 17-game skid against Division I opponents. The Lady Griz are tied for last in the Big Sky standings with Southern Utah.

The Thunderbirds (5-17, 0-11 BSC) enter the week on an 11-game losing streak, which began at the start of league. SUU won its first three games of the season and its last two before Christmas break.

Northern Arizona (6-16, 2-9 BSC) is two games up in the standings on Montana and Southern Utah. The Lumberjacks have league wins on the road at Southern Utah and at home over Eastern Washington.

Coverage: Thursday’s game will air locally on KMPT 930 AM, with Tom Stage and Dick Slater. Saturday’s game will be on KGVO 98.3 FM/1290 AM. Online audio and video options are available at gogriz.com.

More reasons to attend: For both games this week, kids ages 12 and under will get in free. Thursday is the Team Up Montana cancer awareness game.

Not so fast: At first glance it might appear that Montana playing at home, combined with 16 straight losses for Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, would result in two wins for the Lady Griz. But both opponents this week, like Montana itself, have been playing better than their records indicate.

Of the Thunderbirds’ 11 Big Sky losses, seven have been by seven points or fewer or in overtime.

In four of SUU’s last five games, it has lost 67-66 at home to Eastern Washington, 75-70 on the road at North Dakota, 73-68 at home to Weber State and 71-68 at home in double overtime to Idaho State on Saturday.

If you thought Montana’s home loss on Saturday to Montana State, when the Lady Griz gave up a nine-point lead in the final 2:26 of regulation before losing 75-69 in overtime, was tough to take, the Thunderbirds gave up a 12-point lead in the final minutes in their three-point loss to Idaho State.

Southern Utah led for more than 41 minutes to Idaho State’s 3:17.

“They’ve been a lot like us, where they’ve been close. They are coming off a heartbreaker as well,” said UM coach Shannon Schweyen. “They are probably coming in with a lot of the same types of feelings we have, which is that we both let one slip away.

“They’ve had some tough games in league where they’ve been playing people right down to the wire, so they are much better than their record shows. I anticipate it will be a tough ball game for us.”

Northern Arizona suffered its tight losses early in league. After opening with an overtime road win at Southern Utah, the Lumberjacks lost by two at home to North Dakota and three to Northern Colorado, then lost on the road by six at Sacramento State and one at Portland State.

A 56-47 home win over Eastern Washington, one of just three league losses so far for the Eagles, followed, but NAU has since dropped off. On their five-game losing streak, three of which came at home, all five losses have been by 11 points or more.

The bigger picture: All three teams playing at Dahlberg Arena this week will be playing in the Big Sky tournament at Reno the second week of March. And all three will be playing first-round games on Monday, March 6.

All that’s left to determine is final standings, final seeds and opening-round opponents.

“I think the players are encouraged by the thought of starting over with a clean slate,” said Schweyen.

“Regardless of our record, I think we’re playing some of our best basketball. Some coaches have even told me that come March on a neutral court, we’re going to be a dangerous team. With our youth, I think we have more room for growth than anyone, so hopefully we can have a strong finish.”

The last time out: In a tight game against Montana State on Saturday at Dahlberg Arena, Montana, behind McKenzie Johnston and Taylor Goligoski, used a surge early in the fourth quarter to build a 60-51 lead.

But Montana would go the final 2:33 of regulation with a missed shot and three turnovers, which allowed Montana State to tie it at 60 and send it into overtime. The Bobcats scored nine of the first 10 points in the extra session to pull away.

“Obviously in the locker room we were extremely disappointed,” said Schweyen. “It’s always hard when you have a lead and you let it slip away.

“Unfortunately we had that stretch when they knocked down threes and we turned it over and didn’t score, and that’s a bad combination. But we’re encouraged by a lot of the things that were positive about that game.”

The positives:

1. Goligoski scored 19 points, with 13 coming in the fourth quarter and overtime. For much of the fourth quarter, there wasn’t a defender on Montana State who could stop her. Montana is a different team when that Goligoski is on the floor.

2. The Lady Griz scored a season-high 69 points on 41.9 percent shooting. It was the third time in four games Montana has shot better than 40 percent after doing it just twice through the season’s first 18 games.

“Offensively we feel like we’re starting to come around. Our shot selection is getting better, so our shooting percentage is starting to climb on a regular basis,” said Schweyen.

3. Through its first eight league games, Montana never led in a game for than a minute and never by more than three points. Three games ago the Lady Griz led by 11 in third quarter at Eastern Washington and was in a one-possession game in the final minute.

On Saturday, Montana played even with a good Montana State for much of the game and had the Bobcats on their heels in the fourth quarter.

“What’s encouraging is that the girls are realizing that we are growing and that we can compete with anyone,” said Schweyen. “It’s disappointing when you don’t end up getting the W. This team is searching for that, and it will be a big sigh of relief when we get it.

“It would be fun to get one here in Missoula in front of our fans. They’ve been great. It was a phenomenal crowd on Saturday.”

4. McKenzie Johnston. She’s been improving as a point guard as the season has gone along, and now her shot is heating up, which only adds to her effectiveness. She was 6 for 10 overall on Saturday, 2 for 3 from the arc, this from a player who opened her collegiate career 3 for 37 from 3-point range.

The last four games: 4 for 10 from distance.

“Kenzie’s game has just been getting better every week,” said Schweyen. “And she’s beginning to shoot the ball better. We knew she was a better shooter than the numbers she had early in the season. She’s beginning to knock down shots with more regularity.

“She sees the floor well and is a great distributor of the ball. And she’s getting to be a smart defender. Her future is really bright.”

5. Montana out-boarded the Big Sky’s second-best rebounding team 44-43, which may not sound like a lot, but the Lady Griz had been -44 their previous five games. Between 41.9 percent shooting and doing work on the boards, there was a good reason Montana hung around the entire game on Saturday.

The negative:

1. A 13-for-24 effort from the free throw line. In last week’s notes, a question was presented: If the game is tight, can Montana come through at the free throw line? Nope, and it cost the Lady Griz a victory. Eight of those misses came after halftime, in a game that could have been won in regulation.

The last five games Montana is 32 for 60 from the line, and that’s dropped the team’s season percentage to 62.9, which ranks last in the Big Sky and 316th nationally. Unless that improves, it’s going to prove costly again.

“We obviously work a lot on it in practice, both individually and as a team,” said Schweyen. “I think a lot of it is mental. It can be contagious in games like that. You miss a few and everyone tightens up a bit. It was unfortunate because it certainly made a big difference in that game.”

Three things to know about Southern Utah:

1. The team’s top scorer and rebounder, sophomore Darri Frandsen, comes in off the bench. She is averaging 13.0 points and 7.6 rebounds on team-leading 46.5 percent shooting. In last week’s five-point loss to Weber State, she scored 23 points on 10-of-12 shooting.

2. Senior forward Jessica Richardson, who was named preseason All-Big Sky, averages 11.0 points and 6.6 rebounds. Schweyen compares her to Montana State’s Peyton Ferris, who had 27 points and 12 rebounds against the Lady Griz on Saturday.

3. The Thunderbirds will be happy to leave Cedar City and hit both Montana schools this week. SUU is just 1-10 at home this season but 4-7 on the road, including a 70-54 win at Utah State back in November, the same team that beat Montana 65-47 at the Lady Griz Classic five days later.

History: Montana is 13-1 all-time against Southern Utah, with a 6-0 record in games played at Missoula. The Thunderbirds’ only win in the series, 69-49 at Cedar City, came during the 2013-14 season, when SUU shared the regular-season title with North Dakota.

Hunch: Third-year coach Chris Boettcher will be relieved to see Kayleigh Valley in street clothes and on the bench on Thursday. Valley had 27 points and 13 rebounds, then 30 points and nine boards as Montana swept last season’s series, 66-60 in Missoula, 81-50 at Cedar City.

Three things to know about Northern Arizona:

1. She won’t win Big Sky Coach of the Year, but give interim coach Robyne Bostick some credit. After last year’s Big Sky Outstanding Freshman, Alyssa Rader, packed her bags for South Florida in the offseason and former coach Sue Darling was let go in September, NAU was in shambles.

Bostick was elevated from assistant and not only got thing settled, she made the Lumberjacks competitive. Thirteen of NAU’s 16 losses this season have been by 11 points or fewer.

If Bostick is going through a season-long interview process, she’s making a strong argument that she should have the interim tag removed after the season.

2. One of the reasons Northern Arizona has handled the tumultuous offseason well has been the play of Olivia Lucero, a transfer from Loyola Marymount. The guard leads the team in scoring (14.9/g), is tied for the team lead with 61 assists and is pulling down nearly five rebounds per game.

3. A big reason for the recent drop-off in results has been NAU’s defense. The Lumberjacks’ last five opponents have combined to shoot 50 percent, and that coming off a game when NAU held Eastern Washington to 26.8 percent shooting in its last win.

History: Montana leads the all-time series 53-11, with a 30-3 advantage in games played in Missoula. The Lady Griz have won the last eight matchups, with a three-game sweep last season.

Montana won 81-58 in Missoula, 61-57 in Flagstaff, then 78-63 in Reno in the first round of the Big Sky tournament, with No. 5 Montana topping No. 12 Northern Arizona, a game the Lady Griz led by just two entering the fourth quarter.

Around the Big Sky Conference:

* North Dakota traveled to Greeley and picked up a 57-51 win over Northern Colorado on Saturday, handing the Bears their first loss in league. Those two teams are tied atop the conference at 10-1, with Montana State lurking a game back at 9-2.

* Eastern Washington, at 8-3, would be the fourth team to earn a first-round bye in Reno if the Big Sky tournament was being played this week. Idaho, at 7-4, and Idaho State, at 6-4, are also in contention for that perk. Everyone else can start preparing for a Monday game.

* Huge games on the schedule this week, with North Dakota and Northern Colorado going on the road to face Idaho and Eastern Washington. That’s four of the league’s top five teams squaring off, while Montana State plays at home, hoping for an uprising by the challengers.

* Team of the week: Everyone who dressed in a visitors’ locker room. Road teams went 10-0 last week.

* Coach of the week: North Dakota’s Travis Brewster. By rule you earn that by being the first coach to knock off the unbeaten leader. North Dakota outscored Northern Colorado 14-4 in the first quarter, 19-9 in the third and held the Bears to 25 percent shooting.

* Is there a frontrunner for Big Sky MVP? If Montana State hangs around the top of the standings, and the Bobcats should with five of their last seven at home, it has to be Peyton Ferris, right? With Northern Colorado’s Savannah Smith in second and Eastern Washington’s Delaney Hodgins in third?

* Coach of the year is even more up in the air, with Northern Colorado’s Kamie Ethridge the choice at this point. The Bears were picked ninth in the preseason coaches’ poll, but a lot can happen over the next four weeks.

Thursday’s games: SUU at UM, NAU at MSU, PSU at ISU, SAC at WSU, UND at EWU, UNC at UI

Non-Montana game to monitor: Northern Colorado at Idaho. The Vandals can shake things up this week, starting on Thursday against the Bears. It’s the only meeting of the year between the two schools.

Saturday’s games: NAU at UM, SUU at MSU, SAC at ISU, PSU at WSU, UNC at EWU, UND at UI

Non-Montana game to monitor: North Dakota at Idaho. North Dakota’s Travis Brewster and Idaho’s Jon Newlee both like to win. Love to win. Need to win. Especially against the other one when their teams meet. Makes for high drama and some added intensity.