Lady Griz home for weekend games against Portland State, Sac State

The Lady Griz are short on wins this year, but are gaining maturity and experience with each passing week. (GoGriz.com)

By GoGriz.com

The Montana women’s basketball team, which is coming off one of its most promising performances of the season, will play home games at Dahlberg Arena this week against Portland State and Sacramento State.

The Lady Griz will host the Vikings at 7 p.m. on Thursday, the Hornets at 2 p.m. on Saturday.

Opening tip: Montana is 3-14, on an eight-game losing streak and winless at 0-6 through the first three weeks of Big Sky Conference play. The Lady Griz lost games on the road last week at Northern Colorado and North Dakota.

Portland State (9-8, 3-2 BSC) has already more than doubled last season’s win total of four, though it hasn’t been a surprise. The Vikings returned all of their starters from last season and added a pair of transfers who are leading the team in scoring.

Sacramento State (6-10, 2-3 BSC) is still Sac State. The Hornets rank last in the nation in field goal percentage defense (.514) and scoring defense (90.9/g) and are first in 3-point field goals made (11.4/g) and fifth in turnovers forced (23.3/g). In other words, 40 minutes of chaos.

Coverage: Thursday’s game will air in the Missoula area on KMPT 930 AM, Saturday’s on KGVO 101.5 FM/1290 AM, with Tom Stage and Dick Slater. Online listening and viewing options are available at gogriz.com.

Three things to know about Portland State:

1. The Vikings went 4-26 a year ago in coach Lynn Kennedy’s first year, 2-16 in league play, as PSU used a lineup of mostly underclassmen. All five starters returned, led by junior Cici West, who led the Big Sky in rebounding at 9.5 boards per game as a sophomore.

2. To that experience, PSU added Ashley Bolston, a transfer from Washington State, and Sidney Rielly, a transfer from Santa Clara. Rielly leads the team in scoring (17.2/g), Bolston ranks second in scoring (14.2/g) and leads the Big Sky in assists (5.0/g)

3. Portland State leads the Big Sky in field goal percentage at 44.5 percent. The Vikings have shot 51.5 percent during their three-game winning streak against Sacramento State, Southern Utah and Northern Arizona.

Thursday’s big question: How will Montana fare facing a zone defense?

The Vikings are expected to play 40 minutes of zone against the Lady Griz, something Montana hasn’t faced for an entire game since going up against Massachusetts back on Nov. 20.

Montana took 33 3-pointers in that game, a season high, and made nine. If that reliance on the 3-point shot occurs again, it will play right into Portland State’s hand. The Lady Griz are shooting less than 17 percent from the arc through six league games.

“Their zone is good. They are big inside and have good perimeter quickness, so it’s not like they sit back and let you get a lot of easy shots,” said UM coach Shannon Schweyen.

“They make it tough to score in the paint, so we’re going to have to have some people get hot and knock down some perimeter shots to beat them. It’s definitely time for some of our players to come out of their shooting slumps.”

History: Montana leads Portland State 46-16, with a 26-4 advantage in games played in Missoula. The Lady Griz have won the teams’ last seven meetings, with a 79-58 victory at PSU last season and a 76-57 home win.

Three things to know about Sacramento State:

1. The Hornets in a nutshell under fourth-year coach Bunky Harkleroad: 40 minutes of pressing, frequent five-player substitutions, a lot of turnovers created, a lot of easy looks allowed, in exchange for 3-pointers at the other end. Nearly half of the team’s shots (46.2 percent) are from the arc. Or farther.

2. Sacramento State could be 4-1 in league instead of 2-3. The Hornets couldn’t hold a nine-point lead in their 95-88 road loss at Northern Colorado and gave up an 11-point lead at home two weeks ago in an 88-86 loss to Portland State.

3. Not surprisingly, the team’s top two 3-point shooters are the team’s top two scorers. Junior guard Maranne Johnson averages 16.6 points and has made a Big Sky-leading 60 3-pointers. That’s only eight fewer than Montana has as an entire team. Senior guard Emily Easom averages 15.1 points.

Saturday’s big question: How will Montana do with a roster that is for the most part facing Sacramento State for the first time?

The Lady Griz had 20 and 21 turnovers in its losses to Eastern Washington and Northern Colorado but cut that number to 11 in Saturday’s 73-63 loss at North Dakota, its fewest since turning it over just seven times in November’s 59-58 loss to Massachusetts in Iowa City. Will the Lady Griz be fine?

“I don’t know if I’d use that word,” said Schweyen. “I just hope we’re able to function. You know you’re going to get chaos and pressing for 40 minutes, but it’s such a difficult thing to simulate in practice. No one else plays anything like it, so it’s hard to know how you’re going to do.

“It’s a whole different thing, with the constant trapping and pressing. They wear you down. I hope we can stay mentally fresh enough that we don’t make a lot of mistakes. And then it’s whether we can make more layups than they make threes. That’s how you have to burn them.”

History: Montana leads Sacramento State 36-4, but three of the Hornets’ wins have come since the 2012-13 season. The Lady Griz have never lost at home to the Hornets, winning all 21 meetings. Montana lost 83-75 in overtime last year at The Nest and won 90-83 in Missoula.

Montana notes:

* The Lady Griz lost at North Dakota on Saturday, 73-63, but it will have been a victory if it leads to repeat performances. There is numbers-based proof that Montana played better. More important, there was the eye test. The Lady Griz looked like a different team. And it was good.

“Our level of intensity was at a different notch,” said Schweyen. “We talked to the girls about playing so hard that we have to take them out. I think we saw that for the first time.

“The effort was better across the board. I think the girls are realizing that we have the chance to be in some ball games if they play their butts off and put together 40 minutes. I saw progress in that area for sure.”

Montana scored 63 points — 61 coming from freshmen — its highest point total of the season against a Division I opponent, and the Lady Griz nearly shot 40 percent (.397) in a game for the first time in more than a month.

Montana’s 15 assists was its second-highest total of the season, and the team’s positive assist-to-turnover ratio (15 to 11) was its first since facing Incarnate Word the night before Thanksgiving.

* The Lady Griz didn’t light it from 3-point range at North Dakota, going 5 for 12, but it was definitely an improvement. Montana was 8 for 65 (.123) through its first five league games.

* Madi Schoening, who totaled 19 points in Montana’s first five league games, had a breakout performance against the Fighting Hawks. She scored 22 points on 7-of-16 shooting, got to the line eight times, where she made seven, and added a team-high seven rebounds.

The big test comes this week. Can she repeat it, or something like it?

“Oftentimes it takes a game like that for a kid to understand they can do that,” said Schweyen. “It should be a big confidence boost, and I’m hoping it’s something Madi builds on.

“We can tell her all we want about how much we believe in her and how she is capable of a game like that, but sometimes it takes actually going out and doing it, and against one of the top teams in the conference, before there is a realization that, Hey, I can compete at this level.”

* Montana averaged nearly a point per possession (0.98) against North Dakota. The Lady Griz have done better than that just once this season, 1.05 against Incarnate Word. … Madi Schoening‘s efficiency rating of +22 against UND was her best of the season and Montana’s third best. Taylor Goligoski was +25 against Incarnate Word, +23 against Rocky Mountain.

* Montana, at 39.7 percent, shot better than North Dakota (.373). It was the first time since playing at Stephen F. Austin (which is now 14-2 and atop the Southland Conference at 5-0) that the Lady Griz have outshot a Division I opponent and held an opponent below 40 percent shooting.

Three-dot notes: Mekayla Isaak has blocked two or more shots in the last six games in which she’s played. … Taylor Goligoski followed a 4-for-17 shooting performance against Eastern Washington and Northern Colorado with a tidy 4-for-10 effort at North Dakota. She also matched a season high with three assists. … McKenzie Johnston has dished out 13 assists the last three games. … Johnston has led the team (or tied for the team lead) four times in scoring, six times in rebounding, six times in assists and four times in steals. … Emma Stockholm‘s 15 points at North Dakota, on 3-of-6 shooting from 3-point range, 6-of-10 overall, were a season high and her third time this season in double figures. … Montana’s 37 second-half points at North Dakota was the highest scoring half this season against a Division I opponent. … On the flip side, the 45 second-half points allowed on Saturday matched a season high. … The Lady Griz allowed 21 offensive rebounds to the Fighting Hawks, seven more than Montana’s previous season high. … Montana shot a season-best 85.7 percent (12 for 14) from the line against North Dakota. … Montana’s largest lead in its last 12 games against Division I opponents is three points. … The Lady Griz have not held a second-half lead against a Division I opponent since playing at Seattle on Dec. 2.

Around the Big Sky Conference: Northern Colorado (14-3, 6-0 BSC) is the league’s last unbeaten after Montana State pulled out an overtime win at North Dakota on Thursday and the Bears overcame a double-digit first-half deficit to defeat the Bobcats on Saturday.

North Dakota (10-7, 5-1 BSC) and Eastern Washington (9-7, 4-1 BSC) both are sitting on a single league loss, with three more teams at two losses.

Team of the week: Eastern Washington. The Eagles showed their versatility, holding down Idaho State 58-41 on Thursday in a game in which both teams shot under 30 percent. EWU shot 57.1 percent two days later to outscore Weber State 99-85, behind 26 points from both Delaney Hodgins and Ashli Payne.

Player of the Week: Sidney Rielly, Portland State. The Santa Clara transfer averaged 24 points on 73 percent shooting as the Vikings picked up home wins over Southern Utah, 81-74, and Northern Arizona, 56-55. The NAU game was postponed to Monday because of last week’s winter storms in Portland.

Team Jekyll and Hyde: Idaho. Back and forth the Vandals go. An 86-59 win at Montana, followed by an 80-64 clunker at Montana State. Last week, a 95-77 home win over Weber State, followed by a 67-60 loss to Idaho State. The Vandals were outscored by the Bengals in the fourth quarter 20-8.

(Ongoing) hard-luck team of the week: Northern Arizona. The Lumberjacks are 1-4 in league, but those four losses have come by a total of 12 points. NAU had shots in the closing seconds to beat North Dakota and Portland State, and a 3-pointer against Northern Colorado that could have forced overtime.

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

Non-Montana game to monitor: Northern Colorado at Idaho State. The Bears won both regular-season games last season, 48-47 at Greeley, 61-59 at Pocatello. The Bengals won meeting No. 3, 54-45 in the first round of the Big Sky tournament at Reno.

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

Non-Montana game to monitor: Forget the rest of the league. It’s Robin Selvig Day in Missoula. Make your way to Dahlberg Arena for the Sacramento State game and give Selvig and his halftime talk your full attention. He’s earned it, and you’ll be glad you did.