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Lady Griz open Big Sky tourney vs. Idaho State

It’s March, so everything is on the line. The winner advances, the loser goes home and starts looking ahead to 2017-18. (GoGriz.com)

By GoGriz.com

The Montana women’s basketball team will open the Big Sky Conference tournament with a first-round game against Idaho State on Monday at 9 p.m. (MT) in Reno at the Reno Events Center.

The Lady Griz (7-22) are the tournament’s No. 11 seed. The Bengals (16-13) are the No. 6 seed. The winner of the game will play No. 3 Northern Colorado (22-7) on Wednesday at 9 p.m. (MT).

What’s at stake: It’s March, so everything is on the line. The winner advances, the loser goes home and starts looking ahead to 2017-18.

Opening tip: Montana and Idaho State split their regular-season matchups, with the Bengals winning 61-43 on Dec. 29 in Pocatello and the Lady Griz winning 68-53 on Friday night in Missoula.

Coverage: Monday’s game will air in the Missoula area on KGVO 98.3 FM/1290 AM, with Tom Stage and Dick Slater. Links to online viewing, listening and live stats options are available at gogriz.com.

The field: Earning byes to Wednesday’s quarterfinal round were No. 1 Montana State, No. 2 North Dakota, No. 3 Northern Colorado and No. 4 Eastern Washington.

The Bobcats and Fighting Hawks tied for the regular-season championship with 15-3 league marks. MSU had the tiebreaker over UND because of its 74-71 overtime win at Grand Forks in the teams’ only meeting during the regular season.

Monday’s schedule:

Game 1: No. 8 Weber State vs. No. 9 Sacramento State, 1 p.m. (MT) … The Wildcats won the teams’ only meeting, 66-60 in Ogden.

Game 2: No. 5 Idaho vs. No. 12 Southern Utah, 3:30 p.m. (MT) … The Vandals swept the season series, winning 85-68 at Cedar City and 76-61 on Friday in Moscow.

Game 3: No. 7 Portland State vs. No. 10 Northern Arizona, 6:30 p.m. (MT) … The Vikings won a pair of one-point games during the regular season, 56-55 at home, 74-73 in overtime on the road.

Game 4: No. 6 Idaho State vs. No. 11 Montana, 9 p.m. (MT)

“I don’t think there has ever been a more competitive field, 1 through 12,” said UM’s Shannon Schweyen, who will be coaching her first postseason game on Monday night.

“It feels like it could be anybody, because it’s all about the matchups you get. It could very easily be like it was last year, where the No. 9 seed gets all the way to the championship. Maybe it will be the 11 seed this year.”

Tournament bona fides: This is the 29th Big Sky Conference women’s basketball tournament, and Montana has played in all of them, from the early days when it was a four-team event to today’s all-teams-in affair.

The Lady Griz have gone 45-11 in the first 28 tournaments, with 17 championships won, with a majority of those games being played on the friendly hardwood of Dahlberg Arena in Missoula.

Montana is 14-10 in tournament games away from home, going 12-7 in neutral-site games, 2-3 in road games.

Last year as the No. 5 seed, Montana defeated No. 12 Northern Arizona in the first round, 78-63, then lost in the quarterfinals to No. 4 North Dakota, 65-62.

Idaho State had a memorable stay in Reno last March, pulling off three upsets to make it to the championship game.

The No. 9 Bengals defeated No. 8 Northern Colorado, 54-45, No. 1 Montana State, 52-50, and No. 4 North Dakota, 69-54. ISU led No. 3 Idaho at the half in the championship game before finally running out of gas and losing 67-55.

History: Montana leads the all-time series with Idaho State 71-9 and is 2-0 against the Bengals at neutral sites. The teams have met seven previous times in the Big Sky tournament, with Montana holding a 6-1 lead.

1990-91: UM 91, ISU 48 — semifinals at Montana
2000-01: ISU 68, UM 59 — championship at Idaho State
2003-04: UM 66, ISU 62 — championship at Montana
2004-05: UM 78, ISU 67 — semifinals at Montana
2008-09: UM 70, ISU 56 — semifinals at Montana
2010-11: UM 66, ISU 53 — quarterfinals at Portland State
2014-15: UM 69, ISU 67 — quarterfinals at Montana

Quick turnaround: That Montana is playing its first tournament game against the team it ended the regular season against isn’t new, but it is a first for Idaho State.

The Lady Griz have done it five times previously and won all of them:

1985-86: Montana State — won regular-season finale 72-46, won opening tournament game 63-59
1986-87: Montana State — won 58-41, won 64-56
1997-98: Montana State — won 66-58, won 66-50
2007-08: Portland State — lost 72-62, won 94-80
2012-13: Sacramento State — lost 80-71, won 74-53

Trending (Montana): Up. The Lady Griz ended the regular season on a two-game winning streak, defeating Weber State, 71-46, and Idaho State, 68-53, at home last week. Montana has won four of its last seven games. The Lady Griz were 3-19 prior to that.

Trending (Idaho State): Slightly down. The Bengals have dropped three straight games. ISU lost its final regular-season home game to Eastern Washington, 61-58, then got swept on the Montana State-Montana road trip last week.

Idaho State trailed at Montana State 27-7 after the first quarter on Wednesday but fought back to cut it to one in the fourth quarter before eventually falling 73-67. On Friday in Missoula, the Bengals shot 32.7 percent to lose 68-53.

Monday’s five burning questions:

1. Can Montana win away from Missoula? All seven of Montana’s wins this season have come at home. But take the Lady Griz away from Dahlberg Arena and they’ve been a different team, going 0-14 and getting outscored by more than 17 points per game while shooting 33.3 percent.

Only three times in those 14 games has the final margin been closer than 10 points.

Montana is on a high, but will the team’s energy and intensity from last week be the same in a quiet environment late on Monday night at the Reno Events Center?

2. Is the quick turnaround to face a team you just played on Friday a good or a bad thing? Montana coach Shannon Schweyen says it’s actually a positive, and not because her team defeated Idaho State on Friday. It’s more about timing.

The team spent Saturday traveling to Reno, then will get a single practice session on Sunday.

“It’s such a short turnaround between games that you don’t have a lot of time to re-prepare your kids for personnel and style of play,” she says. “Playing a team you’re already familiar with makes that part of it easier.”

Montana held Idaho State to six second-quarter points on Friday and led the entire second half.

“We’ll have to score the ball again against them to be in the game (on Monday),” said Schweyen. “They are very good offensively. They don’t have a big scorer but have a lot of capable scorers. They are very balanced, so you can’t key on one kid. That can make them tough to defend.”

3. Can Montana keep shooting like it has been? The Lady Griz are shooting 35.4 percent for the season, a figure that ranks last in the Big Sky and 321st nationally out of 345 teams, but they have shot 39.1 percent the last eight games.

Last week Montana shot 44.8 percent in its win over Weber State, 44.0 percent in its win over Idaho State, the team’s second- and third-best shooting performances of the season.

4. Can Montana keep defending like it has been?  Teams are shooting 41.7 percent against Montana this season, which will make this the first Lady Griz team in program history to allow its opponents to shoot better than 40 percent for a season.

But like its shooting, Montana’s defense is trending in the right direction. Five of its last seven opponents have been held to sub-40-percent shooting.

Weber State’s 27.6 percent shooting on Wednesday was a season best for Montana. Idaho State’s 32.7 percent on Friday was Montana’s third best of the season.

“We were at a different level defensively than we’ve been this season in how hard we played and how intense we were,” said Schweyen. “If we’re going to be successful at the tournament, we’ll need to recreate that intensity and enthusiasm.”

5. Can McKenzie Johnston stay on her late-season roll? No player mirrors — or has been more responsible for — Montana’s late-season surge more than its redshirt freshman point guard.

The last eight games Johnston is averaging 14.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists while shooting 50.6 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from 3-point range.

Through the season’s first 20 games, Johnston shot 31.9 percent and was 4 for 42 (.095) from the arc.

Idaho State will certainly remember Johnston, who has started the last 14 games. She had 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting, six rebounds and five assists in 39 minutes, with no turnovers, and was the best player on the floor.

“Leadership is something we’ve talked to McKenzie about as the season has gone along. Point guard is a natural position to be a leader at, but it can be hard for a freshman to do, to come in and feel like you can be the floor leader,” said Schweyen.

“As she’s matured, the team has accepted her in a role where she is out there telling people what to do and where to go. Her growth has been amazing. She leads in how hard she works, how tough she is and how hard she plays.”