Must-see hoops: Lady Griz host Kentucky tonight, Gonzaga on Saturday

The Montana women’s basketball team will host a pair of high-profile opponents this week when Kentucky and Gonzaga travel to Missoula for games.

The Lady Griz will host the Wildcats on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Dahlberg Arena, the Bulldogs at 7 p.m. on Saturday.

Opening tips (Montana):

* Montana lost its season opener on Monday night, falling at Wyoming 67-62. The Lady Griz never led in the fourth quarter but three times cut their deficit to one and three more times in the final minute made it a one-possession game.

* Sierra Anderson and Madi Schoening both scored a team-high 14 points. McKenzie Johnston had 11, Jace Henderson matched a career high with 10 off the bench.

* Montana took 18 more shots than Wyoming and made six more baskets but couldn’t overcome a 3-for-19 effort from 3-point range or a big discrepancy at the free throw line. The Cowgirls took 17 more free throws than the Lady Griz, who were whistled for 27 fouls. Such is life on the road.

* Montana turned the ball over just eight times and was +2 on the boards.

* The Lady Griz shot progressively better as the game went along: 33.3 percent in the first quarter, 37.5 in the second, 42.9 in the third and 43.8 in the fourth to finish at 39.7, a percentage only reached twice last season in 15 games away from home.

* Last season’s leading scorer, Taylor Goligoski, who missed both exhibition games, sat out Monday as well and is questionable for this week’s games.

* Freshman Sophia Stiles made her collegiate debut on Monday, finishing with six points on 3-of-5 shooting and three rebounds.

* Unless injuries force a change, sophomore Gabi Harrington, who played last season as a true freshman, will redshirt this year.

Opening tips (Kentucky):

* Kentucky is 2-0 after opening with home wins last weekend over Sacramento State, 101-70, and Gardner-Webb, 72-34. The Wildcats held their first two opponents to 31.5 percent shooting.

* After being among the teams receiving votes in the preseason polls, Kentucky enters this week’s games ranked No. 25 by the AP.

* Kentucky’s road trip continues with a game at Washington State on Saturday, a return game for the Cougars playing at Lexington last December.

* Kentucky went 22-11 last season and lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Ohio State, its eighth consecutive 20-win season and eighth straight trip to the NCAAs.

* Kentucky was picked sixth in the SEC preseason coaches’ poll, behind defending national champion South Carolina, national runner-up Mississippi State, Missouri, Texas A&M and Tennessee.

* Junior guard Taylor Murray was voted preseason second-team All-SEC.

* Coach Matthew Mitchell is in his 11th year at Kentucky. He was the head coach at Morehead State for two years before returning to the school where he was an assistant in 2003-04 and 2004-05. He also worked as an assistant at Florida and began his college coaching career at Tennessee in 1999-2000.

* Montana coach Shannon Schweyen took a recruiting visit to Kentucky as a high school senior at Billings Central.

* Thursday will mark the first time Montana has faced a ranked opponent since playing No. 2 Notre Dame in the first round of the 2015 NCAA tournament. The Lady Griz lost that game on Notre Dame’s home court 77-43.

* Montana has not hosted a ranked team since No. 7 Louisiana Tech played at Dahlberg Arena in 2004 in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The Lady Techsters, ranked No. 7 nationally but given a No. 5 seed by the selection committee, defeated the No. 12 Lady Griz 81-77.

* Montana is 1-15 all-time against teams from the SEC. Seven of those matchups have come in the postseason (two WNIT, five NCAA).

* Thursday will be the first-ever meeting between Montana and Kentucky.

* Thursday will be the fifth time an SEC opponent has played at Montana. Vanderbilt (69-65), as part of the preseason WNIT, and Tennessee (66-61), as the second leg of a home-and-home, both won at Dahlberg Arena in 1994-95.

Arkansas defeated Montana in the title game of the 1998 Lady Griz Classic, 74-54. Montana defeated Mississippi in the championship game of the 2007 Lady Griz Classic, 84-77, the program’s lone win over an SEC team.

* Tennessee was ranked No. 1 in the nation when the Lady Vols played at Missoula in 1994-95. Arkansas was ranked as high as No. 13 earlier in the season but was unranked when the Razorbacks won the 1998 Lady Griz Classic.

Opening tips (Gonzaga):

* Gonzaga is 0-1. The Bulldogs shot 26.7 percent and went 2 for 24 from 3-point range in a 65-49 loss at Colorado State on Monday night.

* The Bulldogs, who play next week at the Play4Kay Showcase in Las Vegas, don’t open at home until Nov. 30 against Eastern Washington.

* Gonzaga, which has won 12 of the last 13 West Coast Conference regular-season championships, was picked to do it again by the league’s coaches, collecting eight of 10 first-place votes in the preseason poll.

* Redshirt junior forward Jill Barta, of Fairfield, Mont., was voted to the 10-player preseason All-WCC team, as was junior guard Laura Stockton. They are two of the team’s three returning starters off last year’s 26-7 team that lost to Oklahoma in Seattle in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

* Barta averaged 16.8 points and 6.0 rebounds last season to earn first-team All-WCC honors. Barta was also first-team all-league as a freshman.

* Gonzaga is coached by Lisa Fortier, who is in her fourth season. She was elevated from assistant to head coach in April 2014 after Kelly Graves took the job at Oregon.

* Gonzaga has advanced to the NCAA tournament nine of the last 11 years. The Bulldogs made the WNIT the other two years.

* Montana and Gonzaga played annually for 26 years, between 1986-87 and 2011-12, before putting the series on ice. The Lady Griz lead the series 17-12, but the Bulldogs have won the last five meetings and 10 of the last 13.

* The teams will play next season in Spokane and hopefully every season after that.

Eight things we learned about Montana on Monday night:

1. This isn’t going to be a repeat of 2016-17.

Ravaged by injury, reliant on youth and hamstrung by inexperience, Montana went 7-23 last year, which included 16 straight losses to Division I opponents.

While it wasn’t surprising, considering what was lost, it was way out of the ordinary for a team that had won 20 or more games in 31 of the 36 previous seasons.

Last year’s team would never have gone into Laramie — where the Cowgirls went 15-3 last season — and been in a position to pull out a win. In fact, last year Montana lost by 25 points to Wyoming at home.

“I was very encouraged by what I saw,” said second-year coach Shannon Schweyen. “They’ve been traditionally very tough at home. Even when we’ve been healthy, we’ve struggled there.

“I didn’t really know what we were going to be getting into, but I felt like we were prepared for the game. They have similar types of athletes we have, so I thought we matched up well with them physically.”

Montana fell behind by eight in the second quarter and by 10 midway through the fourth, but the Lady Griz continued to fight back. Wyoming held off the late charge by going 13 for 15 from the line in the fourth quarter.

“We answered their runs and showed a lot of poise,” said Schweyen. “We got in their way (defensively) and really frustrated them. I just thought we played so well.”

2. Montana’s road losing streak reached 17 with the loss, but that won’t last long.

In front of a crowd of more than 2,400, the Lady Griz shot better than 50 percent on attempts inside the arc, turned the ball over just eight times and out-rebounded the Cowgirls.

“Hopefully it’s a sign of things to come with this team,” said Schweyen, who knows something about winning away from Missoula. She went 47-14 on the road as a Lady Griz player. “That’s a hurdle we need to get over.”

There was another reason Montana showed well on Monday. Wyoming’s home games have some atmosphere, something the Lady Griz become accustomed to at home. Even in a down year last season, Montana still averaged nearly 2,700 for its home games.

Not surprisingly, two of Montana’s better road games last season came at North Dakota (crowd: 1,893) and Montana State (crowd: 3,273).

“We just seem to play well at places that have environments,” said Schweyen. “We were in the game at North Dakota until the very end, and there was a big crowd at Montana State and we were up at the half.”

3. Montana is a better 3-point shooting team than it showed. We think.

The Lady Griz ranked last in the Big Sky Conference last season in both 3-point percentage (.257) and threes made per game (4.0), though both of those figures were impacted by an ice-cold start to the season.

Montana went 8 for 20 from the arc in its exhibition opener against Carroll, which was a good sign, and 5 for 17 against Black Hills State, which was more like last year.

On Monday the Lady Griz went 3 for 19. The players who made threes went 3 for 11 and the bench combined to go 0 for 7.

“I think we can be a good 3-point shooting team, and we need to be,” said Schweyen. “Last year we had some girls get off to a rough start, but they were better shooters than they showed. By the time conference rolled around, the numbers went up for some of them.”

Taylor Goligoski led Montana last season with 33 3-pointers, but they came on 27.7 percent shooting. The team’s top six threats from the arc, in terms of triples made, each shot less than 30 percent.

With Kayleigh Valley and Alycia Harris, two players with size, out for the year, perimeter shooting will become even more important.

“Nora (Klick) is a good addition in that respect,” said Schweyen. “She can give us a little punch off the bench. And Sophie (Stiles) shoots it well.”

4. Jace Henderson has possibly made the jump.

And by that we mean from role player to contributor. The six-foot forward entered Monday’s game holding career highs of 10 points and nine rebounds. On Monday night she came off the bench and scored 10 points and grabbed eight boards, five on the offensive end.

The Henderson of the previous two years was nowhere to be seen in Laramie. This was a new version, playing with confidence and aggressiveness.

“We always talk about posting hard and making it look like a sin if they don’t pass it to you. That’s how Jace posted on Monday,” said Schweyen. “Even Wyoming’s coaches remarked how their girls haven’t gotten sealed like that by somebody in a long time.

“She was demanding the ball and making nice post moves when she got it. And she was active on the offensive boards, which was huge. She gave us extra possessions.”

5. Sophia Stiles is going to be a player.

Sure, the freshman only lost four games in four years at Malta High School, but that type of prep success is never a guarantee that a player is going to arrive college-ready. Stiles has.

There was talk this fall of Stiles redshirting, but that’s now off the table. Montana needs what she has to offer now.

“She’s going to learn as we go this season and get more and more comfortable,” said Schweyen. “I was very pleased with how she’s played. She has good instincts.”

Players redshirting will be freshman forward Abby Anderson and sophomore guard Gabi Harrington. With Kayleigh Valley and Alycia Harris out for the season and Caitlin Lonergan ineligible until late December after transferring from Montana State, that leaves 10 active players for the next six weeks.

And with Taylor Goligoski injured, that leaves nine, or those who played on Monday against Wyoming.

The only thing that could change would be Harrington playing if it becomes necessary, depending on Goligoski’s availability and/or other injuries.

6. Montana can hold its own on the boards … at least with the Wyomings of the world.

Montana out-rebounded Wyoming 32-30 on Monday night and limited the Cowgirls to just six offensive rebounds. But don’t go thinking the Lady Griz have solved all the issues that were apparent earlier this season, particularly at the Maroon and Silver scrimmage.

“It was a great effort by the girls on Monday night,” said Schweyen. “For the most part we were getting bodies on people.”

But it will need to be even better — better than for the most part — particularly on Thursday, against a team that out-boarded Gardner-Webb on Sunday 53-28, including 17 on the offensive end that led to 15 second-chance points.

“This week every rebound is going to be huge,” said Schweyen. “We need to be doing our best job ever on the boards. We’re giving up size at every position, so it’s going to be even more of an emphasis.”

7. Montana missed Taylor Goligoski.

Monday’s game, which was there for the taking, was tailor-made for Taylor Goligoski. Not only would she have made things better from the 3-point line, she could have created things out of nothing when the shot clock and situation demanded it.

For as well as the Lady Griz played, No. 23 offers something nobody else on the team does.

“She is for sure the best player on our team at creating her own shot,” said Schweyen. “She can go one-on-one and elevate over pretty much anyone. And she’s one of our best 3-point threats. It would have been nice to have one more shooter out there.”

8. This is nothing new: Montana values the ball.

The Lady Griz, who annually rank among the nation’s leaders in the statistical category, turned it over just eight times against Wyoming.

But that can be a deceptive number against the Cowgirls, who don’t use defensive disruption to win that end of the floor. Instead they play principled defense, keeping everything in front of them and giving up nothing easy. Wyoming isn’t in it for the turnover, just the defensive rebound.

“They don’t pressure and it’s always on the half court, but it’s still good that we didn’t have a lot of travels,” said Schweyen. “We had good footwork.

“We didn’t force the ball, so it was encouraging in that respect. We took good care of the ball and valued our possessions, which gave us a chance.”

Three things to watch for against Kentucky:

1. How does Montana handle Kentucky’s transition, in particular point guard Taylor Murray? Murray played 54 minutes against Sacramento State and Gardner-Webb and didn’t have a turnover. And she scored 30 points in the two games.

“The biggest thing is going to be transition D,” said Schweyen. “It’s going to be huge. Murray is truly one of the fastest kids I’ve ever seen with the ball in her hands. I mean ever. You see players sprinting back on D, and she’ll still beat everyone down the court and get a layup.”

2. Montana’s recent matchups with SEC teams have come in the NCAA tournament, and the same thing for those games holds true for Thursday. Montana can’t waste a good defensive possession by giving up an offensive rebound that leads to an easy putback.

Easier said than done when Kentucky starts 6-foot-3 senior center Alyssa Rice and 6-foot-3 freshman forward Dorie Harrison.

“We can’t be giving up two or three chances every time,” said Schweyen. “They are 6-3 and 6-3 down there. It will be tough to match up with that with some of our lineups for sure.”

3. How much can Dahlberg Arena help? When former coach Robin Selvig retired in July 2016 after 38 years, he left with a record on Montana’s home court of 511-61 (.893).

For reasons beyond Selvig no longer coaching, Montana went 7-8 at home last year, its first losing record at home in four decades.

The magic is still there and the fans haven’t gone anywhere. It’s whether they can help Montana enough against a top-25 team.

“Our girls certainly love being at home. They love our fans and appreciate the noise they can make,” said Schweyen. “Hopefully we’ll give them some moments to make some noise, because Kentucky is going to be really hard to score on.

Three things to watch for against Gonzaga:

1. Colorado State dropped to 0-1 on Friday when it lost at home to Idaho. The Vandals went 18 for 36 from 3-point range. Hosting Gonzaga three days later, the Rams held the Bulldogs to 2-for-24 shooting from the arc.

It didn’t help that Jill Barta, who finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds, was going 2 for 13 and the Bulldogs shot 26.7 percent as a team.

It can’t be replicated, but it did give Montana a blueprint. A team that averaged 72 points last season was held to less than 50.

“Colorado State did a nice job with their game plan. They maybe got a little bit lucky, because Barta missed a lot of good shots, but Colorado State shot the ball well. They made threes when they got them,” said Schweyen.

2. How well does Montana learn the lessons of Thursday night? Because Gonzaga is a lot like Kentucky in the way it wants to push the ball.

“The one nice thing is we’ll have two common themes this week. Gonzaga loves to get it up the court quickly,” said Schweyen.

“Both of them are going to be unbelievably tough for this team. They are going to be big gut-checks on how we compete and play hard for 40 minutes.”

3. Since its matchup on Saturday night is Gonzaga’s next game after its loss at Colorado State, and since its next set of games will be in Las Vegas at the Play4Kay Showcase, the Bulldogs will be hungry for a bounce-back effort.

And they have the type of team that can do it. Gonzaga starts five upperclassmen, three of whom are fourth-year players.

“They are an extremely talented team,” said Schweyen. “Their inside game is strong. They’ve got good leadership at the point. And they are very disciplined and experienced.”

Big Sky Conference notes: Northern Colorado got the season off to a good start for the league on Friday when the Bears knocked off No. 20 DePaul on the road, 94-88. (DePaul turned around and defeated No. 21 Oklahoma on Monday night.) … After winning at Denver on Sunday, Northern Colorado opens the season 2-0 and ranked No. 2 on ESPN.com’s mid-major top 10, behind only South Dakota State and one spot ahead of Wisconsin-Green Bay. And that’s good mid-major company. … The Bears host LSU of the SEC on Wednesday night, 24 hours before Kentucky plays at Montana. … Idaho State had the second big win for the Big Sky of the opening weekend, winning 79-59 at No. 25 Washington on Sunday behind 30 points from Brooke Blair. … The Huskies are as shorthanded as the Lady Griz this season, but it was still a great win for the Bengals. … Beyond LSU playing at Northern Colorado, Wednesday provides some other sweet matchups as well. North Dakota plays at South Dakota State, and Idaho takes its shot at No. 9 Ohio State. … Sacramento State opened the season with a 31-point loss at Kentucky. On Tuesday the Hornets lost 101-47 at West Virginia. On Saturday they play at Arizona State. Whew.

Upcoming: Montana will depart Missoula on Sunday morning, bound for Mexico and the Cancun Challenge. The Lady Griz will play Indiana State (0-1) next Thursday, No. 16 Marquette (0-1) next Friday.

The Sycamores opened the season with a 60-59 home loss to Saint Louis. The Golden Eagles lost 88-87 at New Mexico, done in by Jaisa Nunn’s 39 points.