Lady Griz look to snap four-game losing streak against Bobcats

The Montana women’s basketball team, on a four-game losing streak that has dropped them out of the top four on the Big Sky Conference’s Road to Reno, will host Montana State on Saturday in its only game of the week.

The Lady Griz (12-14, 8-7 BSC) and Bobcats (14-12, 8-7 BSC) will tip off at 2 p.m. at Dahlberg Arena.

Montana State won the teams’ first meeting, 81-64 in Bozeman on Jan. 20. The Bobcats outscored the Lady Griz 21-9 in the second quarter and put up 46 second-half points, with four starters scoring in double figures.

Coverage: Saturday’s game will be carried by SWX, which can be found on channel 199 for Charter subscribers, and on the Watch SWX app. Shaun Rainey and Krista Redpath will be on the call, with Ben Wineman reporting from the sidelines.

The game will air in Missoula on KGVO (AM 1290, FM 98.3), with Tom Stage and Dick Slater, and be available through Pluto TV and at WatchBigSky.com.

Summary: Montana has lost four in a row and five of its last six, despite four of those games coming at home. Montana State snapped a season-high four-game losing streak with a 77-74 home-court victory over Eastern Washington on Saturday in the Bobcats’ most recent game.

Those February slides have left both teams no longer fighting for a Big Sky Conference regular-season title but trying to win their way into a top-four finish, which would lead to a first-round bye next month at the league tournament at Reno.

Beyond that, both teams want to rediscover the winning ways that could make them a threat in March. Montana went 8-2 between mid-December and the end of January. Montana State won seven of its first 10 league games, but that success hasn’t been sustained by either team the last few weeks.

Five pressing questions:

1. Can Montana find a way to put 40 minutes together?

Montana’s Big Sky opener, when the Lady Griz fell behind Northern Arizona by 21 points in the third quarter, only to rally back for a 70-62 overtime win, should have been a hint of what was to come.

Two weeks ago, on the road at Portland State and Sacramento State, it was third-quarter lulls that did in Montana.

The Vikings used a 12-0 run early in the third period to take control of what had been a one-point game. Two days later, the Hornets opened the second half on a 13-0 run to blow open what had been a four-point game at the break.

Last week at Dahlberg Arena, it was slow starts to the game that did in the Lady Griz.

On Thursday, Eastern Washington led by 10 points before the game was five minutes old. Montana would cut the lead to one in the fourth quarter but could never battle all the way back.

On Saturday, Idaho scored the game’s first 10 points and led 20-5 after the first quarter, 41-22 at the half. In sticking to the theme of the week, the Lady Griz cut their deficit to four in the fourth quarter, but the hole that had been dug was too deep.

“It’s been a variety of things. First it was our starts, then it was the third quarter. Obviously it needs to be a point of emphasis with us,” said coach Shannon Schweyen.

“It’s been a combination of good shots not going and too many turnovers. At some point we have to get over that.”

As a result, Montana has led for fewer than five of a possible 160 minutes during its four-game losing streak, even though the Lady Griz came back to close to within six points or fewer in the fourth quarter in three of those four losses.

Even against Sacramento State, when the second-half lead reached 19 points, Montana battled back to within nine in the fourth quarter.

“I still attribute it to our youth and inexperience,” said Schweyen. “This group got to play a lot of minutes last year, but we weren’t in a lot of games.

“At least we’re coming back this year. Last year we’d get down by 15, and that was it. This group believes that it’s never over for them, and I love that. But at some point we have to start getting off to a better start.”

2. Can Montana do a better job of containing Montana State?

When Montana traveled to Montana State last month, the game was tied at 14 after the first quarter, and it felt like a low-scoring battle was going to follow.

But then the Bobcats shot 46.7 percent in the second quarter, 50 percent in the third, and by the time the game was over, Montana State had scored more points on Montana’s defense than the Bobcats had since putting up 91 in 2007-08.

And the scoring came from all over the court. Montana State hit 11 3-pointers and also scored 38 points in the paint. And it came from different Bobcats. Seven players scored seven or more points, with Delany Junkermier scoring 16, Hannah Caudill and Rebekah Hatchard 14 each.

“The thing that stands out from that game is our lack of closing them out and them getting to the hole on us,” said Schweyen. “We spent a lot of time watching film and preparing for them, and for the first time our girls did not play people the way we had talked about playing them. It was frustrating.

“And then they got cooking a little bit. We’ve got to do a better job of containing them and not letting them blow by us.”

McKenzie Johnston, with 13 points, was the only Montana starter to score more than six points. Sophia Stiles, who will be watching the rematch from the sideline, came off the bench to finish with 11 points and nine rebounds.

3. Can Montana regain its home-court mojo?

When Robin Selvig retired in July 2016, of the numbers affixed to his name and program, none stood out like this one: 511-61. That was his program’s record in games at Dahlberg Arena.

In the nearly two full seasons since his retirement, the Lady Griz are 16-14 at home, with 10 of those losses coming by 10 or more points.

That’s not to say the magic left with Selvig. Instead it points the spotlight on what could have been the last two seasons had injuries not hamstrung the team. Can you imagine the Lady Griz right now with Kayleigh Valley at full strength? With Alycia Harris and Sophia Stiles?

Probably nobody beats Montana at home this season with that roster, including Kentucky and Gonzaga back in November.

“It’s hard to continually beat good teams when you don’t have your top kids out there,” said Schweyen, whose team had to reset itself last year after losing Valley and Harris. This year it was Valley again, then Harris. And then Stiles on Feb. 3, right when Montana had won eight of 10 and was starting to roll.

“I truly believe that if we had Sophia out there, we would have won these last four games. But we don’t, and it’s going to take us some time. You can’t just re-identify yourself in one weekend. It takes some time to figure things out.”

After falling behind 41-22 at the half on Saturday against an Idaho team that was on its way to its ninth consecutive victory, Montana dug in and started fighting back.

The Lady Griz held the Vandals to just six points in the third quarter and to just three field goals over a nearly 13-minute stretch between the third and fourth quarters. And that against a team averaging nearly 75 points per game.

“I thought the Idaho game was a step forward in some ways,” said Schweyen. “I was pleasantly surprised. We played some great defense in that game for stretches. We learned a lot last weekend.”

4. Can Montana, or Montana State for that matter, work its way back into the top four by the end of next week?

At 12-3 and 11-3 in league, Northern Colorado and Idaho feel like locks to earn two of the byes when the Big Sky tournament opens in Reno in two weeks. That means a day off on Monday while seeds 5-12 play, meaning three wins instead of four are required for a tournament championship.

Montana and Montana State are two of six teams battling for the two other byes, with Idaho State and Weber State sitting 9-5, Portland State and Eastern Washington at 8-6 and Montana and Montana State at 8-7.

The good news for the winner of the Lady Griz-Bobcat game on Saturday is that losses are going to be coming to some of the other teams in that mix, with Weber State and Idaho State making the Idaho-Eastern Washington trip this week.

And then Montana and Montana State get head-to-head chances next week against Idaho State and Weber State, albeit on the road.

“Any wins now could be big in tiebreakers, because nobody knows where anybody is going to finish,” said Schweyen. “Our thing is we want to be playing our best basketball and not worrying about where we end up.

“Hopefully we’ll be in a position to sneak in and grab that last spot, but we need to focus on what we have control over, which is trying to put a better game together for 40 minutes and not having those big lapses.”

Were the season to end today, No. 8 Montana would face No. 9 North Dakota in the opening round of the tournament. Actually the very first game, at noon on Monday, March 5, with the winner playing current top seed Northern Colorado at noon on Wednesday in a quarterfinal game.

5. Can Montana regain its form on the defensive end?

Remember when Montana held Portland State to four points in the third quarter and 22 in the second half in a 69-53 home win? When the Vikings averaged just 0.76 points per possession? Or when North Dakota was held to 43 points on its home floor and 51 in a two-point Montana win at home?

For all the quantifiable elements that Sophia Stiles was giving the team — she ranked second in a number of statistical categories during league at the time of her injury — what was also lost was this: she was able to spook teams with her athleticism and instincts on the defensive end.

“She could keep people in front of her. She could guard people and bluff and recover. She made teams worried about steals. She gave us things you can’t teach,” said Schweyen. “She did those little things all the time, and that’s hard to replace.”

It’s no coincidence that Montana’s last four opponents, with Stiles on the bench with a season-ending knee injury, has each averaged more than a point per possession, the first time that’s happened — meaning four games in a row — against Montana’s defense this season.

Portland State (.463), Sacramento State (.449), Eastern Washington (.473) and Idaho (.407) all shot better than 40 percent.

“We’ve got kids who are trying to step in and take on that role,” said Schweyen. “There have been some bright spots.

“Taylor (Goligoski) had some great on-ball defense against Idaho and Eastern. She got her first charge last weekend. We miss Sophia’s presence out there, but I was encouraged by what we did defensively against Idaho.”

Montana notes:

* Montana’s four-game losing streak is its longest since opening the season 0-5 in November.

* With its win at Montana on Thursday, Eastern Washington extended its winning streak over the Lady Griz to four games, the longest winning streak for the Eagles in the 92-game history of the series.

* How to lose a game by three points and feel sick about it: Montana turned the ball over 14 times in the first half against Eastern Washington on Thursday, 19 in all, and missed 12 free throws, going 19 for 31 (.613).

* Thursday was the first time Montana has shot better than an opponent (.481 to .473) this season and lost (10-1) and the first time losing this season when scoring 70 or more points (3-1).

* Montana is now 1-3 in games this season decided by five points or fewer.

* The Lady Griz led for just 14 seconds against the Eagles, going up 2-0 on Mekayla Isaak‘s game-opening basket. Violet Kapri Morrow answered and Symone Starks hit a 3-pointer to put Eastern Washington up 5-2, and Montana would never retake the lead.

* After Montana pulled within two, 68-66, on a McKenzie Johnston basket with 2:46 left, the Lady Griz missed their next six shots. Delaney Hodgins, who finished with a game-high 24 points, scored the game’s next six points to win the game for the Eagles.

* Montana went 1 for 11 (.091) from the arc against the Eagles, setting a new season low for both makes and percentage.

* Eastern Washington’s bench outscored Montana’s reserves 15-14. It was just the sixth time this season the opposing team’s bench has outscored Montana’s.

* Jace Henderson had the team’s best efficiency rating against Eastern Washington of 27, the team’s best rating since Sophia Stiles‘ 34 at Southern Utah. Henderson had 15 points, eight rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a steal while going 5 for 5 from the field.

* Montana’s five points in the first quarter on Saturday against Idaho was its lowest-scoring period of the season, one point less than the Lady Griz scored in the fourth quarter in its loss to Indiana State in Cancun over Thanksgiving.

* Mikayla Ferenz hit six 3-pointers in Idaho’s win, Taylor Pierce had five, giving them 100 and 99, respectively, for the season. Montana has made 109 as a team. The team’s .263 season shooting percentage from the arc ranks 326th nationally, ahead of only 23 other teams.

* Montana’s 15-point deficit against Idaho after the first quarter (20-5) was its largest of the season. Its 19-point halftime deficit was its second-largest of the season behind the 20-point hole against Marquette in Cancun over Thanksgiving.

* Idaho’s six-point third quarter was the ninth time this season Montana has held an opponent to seven or fewer points in a period.

* Montana went 3 for 7 from the line against the Vandals, both season lows.

* McKenzie Johnston had played every minute for Montana the previous four games before having to take a seat with two early fouls against Idaho. She played all but the final minute of the second half — she fouled out — scoring 14 points on 7-of-10 shooting in those 19 minutes.

* Sierra Anderson, in her most minutes since before Christmas, filled in for Johnston and had a nice outing with four assists and only one turnover in 17 minutes.

* Johnston had a plus/minus against Idaho of +8, meaning the Lady Griz outscored the Vandals by eight when she was on the court. Those 13 minutes of the first half she sat and watched were costly. Hot take: Montana is better with Johnston on the floor.

* Taylor Goligoski played all 80 minutes in two games last week. Madi Schoening played all 40 against Idaho, the first 40-minute game of her career.

* Idaho won on Saturday despite not getting a single point from its bench.

* After turning the ball over 19 times against Eastern Washington, Montana cut that to nine on Saturday against Idaho to come to within one of its season low of eight, set in the season-opening loss at Wyoming. Of course the two teams last week defend differently, so it’s not an even comparison.

* Montana fell behind 10-0 on Saturday and never held a lead against Idaho. It’s the second time that’s happened at home this season. The Lady Griz also never held a lead against Gonzaga way back on Nov. 18, the night of Bob Stitt’s final game as coach of the Griz football team.

* Caitlin Lonergan had 11 points against Idaho, her sixth double-figure scoring game since becoming eligible prior to the team’s game against Southern Utah in late December.

* Hailey Nicholson played 19 minutes against both Eastern Washington and Idaho, her most minutes since before New Year’s. She scored eight points in both games, going 4 for 8 against the Eagles, 4 for 9 against the Vandals.

Five things to know about Saturday:

1. Montana State has won three straight over Montana, only the second time that’s happened since the late 70s, and five of the last six. Overall Montana is 77-27 against Montana State, with a 45-7 advantage in games played in Missoula. More than half of those wins (4) have been under coach Tricia Binford.

2. Montana State’s Hannah Caudill (5.0/g) and Montana’s McKenzie Johnston (4.9/g) rank first and second in the Big Sky in assists. They are also scoring threats, with Caudill averaging 11.8 points per game, Johnston 11.2. Both rank in the top 21 in the league in scoring.

In the teams’ first meeting, Caudill had 14 points and six assists, Johnston 13 points and seven assists, but advantage Caudill since her team won the game.

3. This could be trouble: Eastern Washington went 11 for 21 (.524) from 3-point range against Montana on Thursday, Idaho went 13 for 34 (.382) on Saturday. Now along comes Montana State, which ranks fifth nationally at 10.1 triples per game. The Bobcats made 28 in two games last week.

4. Montana State’s senior class — at least its four-year players, Hannah Caudill and Delany Junkermier — is 5-2 against Montana, ensuring it will be the first Bobcat class to have a winning record against the Lady Griz since the late 70s.

5. Beyond not always following the scouting report, a lot of the teams’ first meeting came down to hustle. Montana State just did more of it. The Bobcats had 19 second-chance points, thanks to converting offensive rebounds into good and open looks, before the Lady Griz scored their first.

Around the Big Sky Conference:

* Montana and Montana State play on Saturday, as do Northern Colorado and North Dakota in Greeley. Every other Big Sky team plays twice this week. That will send everyone into next week with 16 games played, two to go. Here is what everyone has left:

UNC (12-3): UND, PSU, SAC
UI (11-3): ISU, WSU, at NAU, at SUU
ISU (9-5): at UI, at EWU, MSU, UM
WSU (9-5): at EWU, at UI, UM, MSU
PSU (8-6): SUU, NAU, at UNC, at UND
EWU (8-6): WSU, ISU, at SUU, at NAU
MSU (8-7): at UM, at ISU, at WSU
UM (8-7): MSU, at WSU, at ISU
UND (5-10): at UNC, SAC, PSU
NAU (3-11): at SAC, at PSU, UI, EWU
SAC (3-11): NAU, SUU, at UND, at UNC
SUU (2-12): at PSU, at SAC, EWU, UI

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

Game to monitor: Idaho State at Idaho. The Vandals have won nine straight, the Bengals have won three straight and five of six to move into contention for a top-four finish.

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

Non-Montana game to monitor: North Dakota at Northern Colorado. When the teams met in Grand Forks last month, the Fighting Hawks outscored the Bears 45-23 in the second half to rally for a 78-70 victory.

Upcoming: A long road trip. Montana will depart for Weber State on Tuesday, play the Wildcats on Wednesday, travel to Pocatello on Thursday, play at Idaho State on Friday, travel to Salt Lake City on Saturday and fly to Reno, where it will remain as long as it keeps winning. It’s that time of year.