Lady Griz back on the road at Sac State, Portland State

By GoGriz.com

After two straight weeks at home, the Montana women’s basketball team will be back on the road this week, playing games at Sacramento State and Portland State.

The Lady Griz will face the Hornets at 8 p.m. (MT) on Thursday at The Nest in Sacramento and the Vikings on Saturday at 3 p.m. (MT) at the Stott Center in Portland.

Looking ahead: Montana will play at Montana State on Saturday, Feb. 25, then wrap up the regular season with home games against Weber State and Idaho State on Wednesday, March 1, and Friday, March 2.

The Big Sky Conference tournament opens in Reno on Monday, March 6, with first-round games. Montana will be among the eight teams playing in the first round, with seeding still to be determined.

Montana quick hitters:

* After home wins over Southern Utah and Northern Arizona last week that snapped a 13-game losing streak, Montana (5-19, 2-11 BSC) is tied for 10th in the Big Sky standings, two games in the win column behind both of this week’s opponents.

* Montana’s two-game winning streak is its first of the season, and Thursday’s win over the Thunderbirds was the first over a Division I opponent for the Lady Griz since the night before Thanksgiving, when they defeated Incarnate Word at the Lady Griz Classic.

* McKenzie Johnston became the first Lady Griz this season to be named Big Sky Conference Player of the Week when she was honored on Tuesday. She averaged 22.5 points on 68.2 percent shooting, 7.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists in last week’s wins, with the game-winning basket against the Lumberjacks.

* Montana has yet to win a game away from Missoula this season. The Lady Griz are 0-9 in road games, 0-2 in neutral-site games. Montana has shot just 32.9 percent in those 11 games.

* In its last six games, Montana has shot 41.1 percent. It’s telling that that’s raised the team’s season shooting percentage to 34.8. The Lady Griz still rank 323rd nationally out of 345 teams in field goal percentage.

* Montana built 18-point third-quarter leads last week on both Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, the largest leads the Lady Griz have held this season. It marked just the fourth time in 13 Big Sky games that Montana has led in the second half. All four have come in the last five games.

* Montana has lost three straight games to Sacramento State at The Nest and won three straight against Portland State at the Stott Center.

Coverage: Thursday’s game will air locally on KMTP 930 AM, Saturday’s on KGVO 98.3 FM/1290 AM, with Tom Stage and Dick Slater. Online listening and viewing options, plus links to live stats, are available at gogriz.com.

Trending (Montana): Up. Winning two straight games after dropping 13 in a row will send any team’s stock soaring.

After losing a disappointing home game to Montana State in overtime the week before, Montana got the monkey off its back with a 64-55 win over Southern Utah on Thursday. The Lady Griz held the Thunderbirds to 32.3 percent shooting, Montana’s second-best defensive effort of the season.

Despite giving away all of an 18-point lead on Saturday against Northern Arizona, Montana used a driving layup by McKenzie Johnston with five seconds left to pull out a 60-59 victory. Johnston had 26 points in the victory on 11-of-13 shooting.

Trending (Sacramento State): Down. The Hornets (8-15, 4-8 BSC) felt like a team on the rise after winning four of five, including back-to-back road wins at Montana and Portland State, but the Hornets will enter Thursday’s game on a four-game losing streak.

Eastern Washington and Idaho both won at The Nest two weeks ago. Last week Sacramento State got swept on the road, falling at Weber State and Idaho State.

The Hornets have made just 11 3-pointers the last three games, which had been their per-game average, and are shooting 32.5 percent during their four-game losing streak.

Trending (Portland State): Down. When the Vikings (10-14, 4-8 BSC) won at Montana by 20 on Jan. 19, then pushed Montana State two days later before falling 83-76, it felt like the Vikings were becoming a team to be reckoned with.

Except the loss to the Bobcats started a six-game losing streak, which PSU will take into Thursday night’s rematch against Montana State. To the Vikings’ credit, those have been competitive losses, all by 10 points or fewer.

Even 32 points from Sidney Rielly on Saturday at Weber State couldn’t snap the losing streak.

The first meeting (Montana-Sacramento State): The Hornets jumped out to a 25-14 lead after one quarter, then blew the game open in the third, outscoring the Lady Griz 22-13 to build what would become an 18-point lead.

Sac State (Sac State!) took the air out of the ball in the fourth quarter, draining the shot clock and limiting possessions on its way to a 73-60 win, the Hornets’ first in Missoula in 22 tries.

Three lessons learned:

1. Montana turned the ball over 17 times, which is actually pretty good against a team forcing more than 22 per game. What cost the Lady Griz was shooting 42.6 percent against a team that is allowing its opponents to shoot 50.2 percent this season, last in the nation.

2. Sacramento State coach Bunky Harkleroad is adaptable. With his team in good position to win its first-ever game over Montana in Missoula, Harkleroad changed tactics in the fourth quarter. He took his foot off the team’s gas pedal, which allowed the Hornets to cruise to the victory.

3. For eight of Montana’s 11 players who saw action in the first game against the Hornets, it was their first time facing Sacramento State and its unique style of play. Even that 40 minutes of experience should help going into the rematch on Thursday.

History: Montana leads the series against Sacramento State 36-5, though the teams are 4-4 in their last eight meetings. The Lady Griz are 15-4 on the Hornets’ home floor but 2-4 since 2009-10.

The first meeting (Montana-Portland State): The Lady Griz and Vikings were tied at 20 two minutes into the second quarter in their matchup at Missoula. That was the lone highlight for Montana in what turned out to be a desultory 64-44 loss.

A 9-0 run gave PSU a comfortable halftime lead, and the Lady Griz scored just 20 second-half points on 24.2 percent shooting. Nobody scored in double figures for Montana in what was one of the low points of the season.

Three lessons learned:

1. That Lady Griz team is not the current Lady Griz team. That’s not to say Montana will win on Saturday, but it’s doubtful McKenzie Johnston, Madi Shoening and Taylor Goligoski, the team’s three leading scorers, are going to go 5 for 25 and Montana is going to shoot 27.4 percent.

2. Portland State is the Big Sky’s top shooting team and showed why in the first game. The Vikings ran their offense really well and shot 51.0 percent, with 6-foot-4 Courtney West quietly dominating, with 18 points on 9-of-12 shooting, 13 rebounds and four blocks.

3. The Vikings are long and play zone, which played right into Montana’s greatest weakness (at that time), which was outside shooting. Saturday will be a true test to see how far Montana’s offensive efficiency has come.

History: Montana leads the series against Portland State 46-17 and had won seven straight against the Vikings before PSU won in Missoula last month. The Lady Griz have gone 19-10 against Portland State at the Stott Center.

The elephant in the room arena: Unless Montana’s free throw shooting improves, it is going to cost the Lady Griz at just the wrong time, like in Reno, and turn what could have been a win into an excruciating loss (the Montana State game comes to mind).

After going 6 for 13 against Northern Arizona, Montana is down to 62.4 percent for the season, which ranks last in the Big Sky and 321st nationally.

And it is very un-Montana-like. The last Lady Griz team not to shoot 70 percent from the line for a season was 1998-99.

Montana three-dot notes: Coach Shannon Schweyen has seemed to settle on a consistent starting lineup of Johnston, Goligoski, Schoening, Nicholson and Isaak. … Johnston last week set single-game highs for Montana in free throws made (10) and attempted (16) against Southern Utah and field goals made (11) against Northern Arizona. … The Lady Griz matched a season high with 17 assists against Southern Utah. … Montana held Southern Utah to 0.81 points per possession, Northern Arizona to 0.87, the team’s best metrics this season against Big Sky opponents. … Johnston had a +27 efficiency rating against Southern Utah, the best on the team this year. Against Northern Arizona she was even better, checking in at +29. … Mekayla Isaak‘s 10 rebounds against Southern Utah was her third time this year in double figures. … Taylor Goligoski was held without a point by Northern Arizona, the first time that’s happened this season. Her previous low was four points. … Johnston from 3-point range the first 20 games: 4 for 42. The last four: 7 for 10. … Gabi Harrington‘s 3-pointer against Northern Arizona was her first triple since Jan. 7. … Madi Schoening‘s last three games: 11.7 points on 56.5 percent shooting and 7.0 rebounds. … Montana has scored 60 or more points the last three games, a first this season. … Montana held the lead in last week’s two games for more than 72 minutes, or more than they’d led the previous 18 games combined.

Around the Big Sky Conference:

* And just like that, only three weeks remain of the regular season. There is a three-way tie atop the standings between Northern Colorado, Montana State and North Dakota at 11-2. UNC and UND both split the Idaho-Eastern Washington trip last week while the Bobcats were winning at home to move up.

* After this week’s trip to Portland State and Sacramento State, Montana State closes with three straight home games, where the Bobcats are 10-0 this season. … Northern Colorado plays at North Dakota next week, which gives the Fighting Hawks a chance to pick up an important season sweep of the Bears.

* The chase group also eyeing at top-four finish and first-round bye in Reno: Eastern Washington (9-4), Idaho State (8-4) and Idaho (8-5). Idaho State has the toughest road ahead: at North Dakota/Northern Colorado this week, home for Idaho/Eastern Washington, then at Montana State/Montana.

Thursday’s games: ISU at UND, WSU at UNC, MSU at PSU, UM at SAC

Non-Montana game to monitor: Idaho State at North Dakota. The teams’ last six regular-season meetings have been decided by a total of 21 points (3-3-3-6-1-5). The Fighting Hawks pulled out a 65-62 overtime win at Pocatello last month.

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

Non-Montana game to monitor: Eastern Washington at Idaho. The teams are separated by one game in the standings, with the Eagles holding a 67-57 win from their first meeting in Cheney. A season sweep would put EWU in excellent position to finish in the top four.