Lady Griz host Bobcats on Saturday

The second half of the Big Sky women’s season begins Saturday. (GoGriz.com)

By GoGriz.com

The Montana women’s basketball team will open the back half of its Big Sky Conference schedule this week with a single home game against Montana State. The Lady Griz and Bobcats will tip off at 2 p.m. on Saturday at Dahlberg Arena.

Opening tip: Montana (3-18, 0-10 BSC) enters the game on a 12-game losing streak and hasn’t defeated a Division I opponent since beating Incarnate Word the night before Thanksgiving. The Lady Griz are one of two BSC teams, along with Southern Utah (5-15, 0-9 BSC), who are still seeking their first league win.

Montana State (15-5, 8-2 BSC) has won four straight games, seven of eight and 14 of 16 since opening the season 1-3. The Bobcats are alone in third place in the Big Sky standings, two behind Northern Colorado (18-3, 10-0 BSC), one behind North Dakota (14-7, 9-1 BSC).

Coverage: Saturday’s game will air locally on KGVO 98.3 FM/1290 AM, with Tom Stage and Dick Slater. The game will be televised on cable channel SWX Montana, with Melinda Lee and Don Holst. Shaun Rainey will cover sideline reporting. Online video and audio options are available at gogriz.com.

Join the pack: Saturday, which finishes with the Montana-Montana State men’s game at 7 p.m., has officially been declared a Maroon Out by those who decree such things. Don’t be the only Griz fan in your section wearing something that isn’t maroon. It would be a fashion faux pas of the highest order.

Point on the line: Saturday’s game is the next available point in the Brawl of the Wild Series presented by Town Pump Food Stores, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana and Northwestern Energy. Montana State currently holds a 4-2 lead after the fall sports and is seeking its first win in year No. 4 of the series.

Setting the table (Montana State):

* The Bobcats won their first outright Big Sky Conference title last season with a 14-4 league record but went one-and-done at the league tournament in Reno, falling in the quarterfinals 52-50 to No. 9 Idaho State on a last-second 3-point shot. MSU made the WNIT and lost in the first round at Utah, 95-61.

* Senior forwards Peyton Ferris and Riley Nordgaard are returning starters from that team. Ferris was named the Big Sky preseason MVP, Nordgaard was voted preseason All-Big Sky. The Bobcats were picked first in the preseason media poll, third in the coaches’ poll.

* Opening the season on the road without Nordgaard in the lineup, the Bobcats lost by 10 at Utah and eight at Utah State. Two games later they lost by eight at UC Davis to drop to 1-3. The only setbacks since Nov. 23 have been 67-59 at Idaho State and 66-58 at Northern Colorado. A solid body of work.

* Montana State is coming off an impressive road sweep of Idaho and Eastern Washington last week. Tied entering the fourth quarter, the Bobcats pulled out a 66-61 win at Moscow on Thursday. On Saturday, MSU outscored the Eagles 19-6 in the third quarter to blow open a tight game and win 72-61.

* Junior Hannah Caudill gives Montana State depth beyond just Ferris and Nordgaard. The point guard is averaging 9.7 points, ranks among the Big Sky leaders in assists (4.6/g) and is a dangerous 3-point threat. She is 45 for 105 from the arc for the season. That percentage of 42.9 ranks second in the Big Sky.

* Junior guard Delaney Junkermier and freshman forward Blaire Braxton have started all 20 games.

* Montana State leads the Big Sky in field goal percentage defense (.367) and 3-point field goal percentage defense (.275), a strength that couples uncomfortably with Montana’s biggest weakness. The Lady Griz rank last in field goal percentage (.339) and 3-point field goal percentage (.243).

The coach’s take: “They have good balance between Ferris, Nordgaard and Caudill,” said first-year UM coach Shannon Schweyen. “They know what they’re doing and what they’re looking for.

“Ferris is just a nightmare in the paint for people to guard, because she is so strong and can score it. Nordgaard can shoot it or attack the basket, and Caudill provides good leadership at the point.

“They are solid on defense, they have good quickness, and they rebound the ball well. They are pretty complete.”

Setting the table (Montana):

* Though the Lady Griz came out of last week’s road trip to Eastern Washington and Idaho with a pair of losses, they played good basketball for long stretches in both games, which was a positive development.

In Thursday’s 64-57 loss to the Eagles, Montana led 36-29 at the break, its first halftime lead since Dec. 12, and built an 11-point third-quarter advantage.

The Lady Griz shot 64.0 percent in the first half but faltered down the stretch, hitting just 3 of 13 shots in the fourth quarter as Eastern Washington rallied for its fifth consecutive win over Montana in Cheney.

Two days later, against a team it lost to in Missoula 86-59, Montana shot 46.2 percent in the first half and trailed Idaho 35-31 at the break. The Vandals went 6 for 14 from 3-point range in the second half, the Lady Griz shot 29.0 percent, and Idaho outscored Montana 40-19 to win 75-50.

“I think (the players) are starting to understand that we’re capable of competing with anybody. I’m not sure at the beginning they believed we were capable of that,” said Schweyen.

“Things are starting to click a little more offensively for us, and we’re starting to put more quality minutes into a game of 40. I think we’re making strides. Hopefully that will carry over and we have a good performance at home.”

* Montana led for 18:58 at Eastern Washington, 8:05 at Idaho. Through its first eight league games, the Lady Griz led for a total of 159 seconds.

* Montana’s top five scorers will be playing in their first Montana-Montana State game on Saturday. Two of those players — freshmen Madi Schoening and Emma Stockholm — plus the team’s No. 7 scorer — freshman Gabi Harrington — are from out of state.

“Those three in particular aren’t Montana kids, so it will be a completely new thing for them to realize the significance of the Bobcat-Griz rivalry,” said Schweyen.

* Montana’s losing streak is the longest for the program during the record-keeping era (1974-75 to present). The previous long was seven in 1977-78.

* Opposing teams have made themselves right at home this season at Dahlberg Arena, where Montana is 1-7 against Division I opponents. Teams are shooting 44.0 percent against the Lady Griz on their home floor while holding Montana to 35.1 percent.

* Shannon Schweyen will be the head coach for the first time against Montana State, but she’s no stranger to the rivalry. She went 9-1 against the Bobcats as a player, 42-17 as an assistant coach under Robin Selvig.

Five burning questions:

1. Can Montana hang with Montana State offensively? The Bobcats are averaging a healthy 72.2 points on 41.1 percent shooting this season. Montana averages 52.5, has a season high of 66 and has scored more than 60 points just twice against Division I opponents.

2. Can Montana rebound with Montana State? Behind Nordgaard (7.7/g), Braxton (7.0/g) and Ferris (6.9/g), the Bobcats outrebound their opponents by 5.7 per game. The Lady Griz have been outrebounded in four of their last five games, including 39-24 at Eastern Washington, 37-30 at Idaho.

3. If the game is tight, can Montana come through at the free throw line? At 63.6 percent for the season, the Lady Griz rank in the bottom 12 percent in the national statistics. Montana is 19 for 36 (.528) from the line the last four games and got to the line a season-low three times against Idaho.

4. Which Hailey Nicholson is going to show up? The freshman had 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting against Idaho in early January and 13 on 6-of-9 shooting at Eastern Washington last Thursday. The rest of league she is averaging 5.4 points on 38 percent shooting. More of the former would help on Saturday.

5. Who wins the first quarter? Montana’s 15-14 lead after 10 minutes at Idaho on Saturday was its first lead at the end of the first period against a Division I opponent since November. The Lady Griz have been outscored 369-241 in the first quarter this year, an early deficit of more than six points per game.

On the other side of the matchup, the first quarter has been Montana State’s strongest period. The Bobcats have outscored their opponents by 80 points in the first 10 minutes.

History: Montana leads the all-time series 77-24 and has won six of the last eight meetings. The Lady Griz are 45-6 against the Bobcats in Missoula, but half of MSU’s six wins have come in the last eight years, with wins under coach Tricia Binford in 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2012-13.

The teams split their games last season, with each winning on its home floor. At Bozeman, Montana State held Montana without a field goal the final 12 minutes to rally from a nine-point, third-quarter deficit and win 61-52.

In the rematch at Missoula, the Lady Griz gave away all of their 13-point, third-quarter lead and trailed 66-65 before Haley Vining‘s game-winning 3-pointer with 14 seconds left. Nordgaard and 2015-16 Big Sky MVP Jasmine Hommes both missed at the other end, and Montana pulled out a 70-66 win.

Montana three-dot notes: McKenzie Johnston‘s six steals at Eastern Washington were the most for a Lady Griz player this season and the most for a Montana player since Torry Hill’s seven against Portland State during the 2013-14 season. … Johnston has led Montana five times in scoring, a team-high seven times in rebounding, a team-high eight times in assists, one time in blocks and six times in steals. … Montana is 0-9 in day games this year and is coming off a winless January. … Despite cooling off late, the Lady Griz still shot 46.2 percent at Eastern Washington, a season best and just their fourth time all year above 40 percent. … Montana’s 24 rebounds at Eastern Washington were a season low. The Eagles grabbed 15 offensive rebounds in that game, the second-most allowed this year by the Lady Griz (21 by North Dakota the season high). … Rachel Staudacher had a career-high four assists at Eastern Washington and matched a season high with seven points at Idaho. … Sierra Anderson grabbed a team-high six rebounds at Idaho to match her career high. … Johnston has started the last six games and has played 36 or more minutes the last four. … The 11-point lead Montana built at Eastern Washington was its largest since playing Incarnate Word on Thanksgiving eve.

Around the Big Sky Conference:

* Northern Colorado has won 11 straight games and remains unbeaten atop the standings, with North Dakota sitting one game behind. Those two teams will meet twice in the next four weeks, with game No. 1 at noon on Saturday in Greeley. Montana State will be watching.

* Expect Montana State to remain in contention as February rolls on. After Saturday’s game at Montana, the Bobcats play five of their last seven at home, where they haven’t lost this year. Their only remaining road games will be at Portland State and Sacramento State.

* If the Big Sky tournament was being held this week, Eastern Washington would be the No. 4 seed and earn a first-round bye, but four teams are just one game behind the Eagles in the loss column. Who gets a bye in Reno might be the only drama left if Northern Colorado keeps winning.

* Team of the week: Sacramento State. The Hornets avenged a two-point home loss to Portland State with a 77-68 win at PSU on Saturday. Trailing by eight entering the fourth quarter, the Hornets outscored the Vikings 27-10 over the final 10 minutes, part of a 22-0 run. That’s four wins in five games.

* Thursday’s games: WSU at SUU, ISU at NAU, UI at PSU, EWU at SAC

* Game to monitor: Idaho at Portland State. The upstart Vikings, one of those Big Sky teams with four league losses, didn’t do themselves any favors by falling apart against the Hornets. They host the Vandals in a meeting between two of the conference’s best offenses.

* MSU at UM, UND at UNC, ISU at SUU, WSU at NAU, EWU at PSU, UI at SAC

* Non-Montana game to monitor: North Dakota at Northern Colorado. Six of the Fighting Hawks’ nine league wins have been by five points or fewer.