By JOEL CARLSON | Photos By WILLIAM MUNOZ
The Montana women’s basketball team, fresh off a much-needed bounce-back win over MSU Northern Tuesday night, will face its toughest challenge of the young season Thursday when it hosts unbeaten Pacific.
The Lady Griz (1-1) and Tigers (2-0) tip off at 7 p.m. at Dahlberg Arena.
Montana will wrap up its season-opening, four-game home stand Sunday with a matchup against Portland (1-1) at 1 p.m. The Pilots play at Montana State Friday night.
Coverage: The games against Pacific and Portland both will be aired locally on KGVO 101.5 FM/1290 AM, with Tom Stage and Dick Slater calling the action. Both games will have video streaming and live stats through gogriz.com.
Lady Griz at a glance: Montana opened its season Sunday with a disappointing 58-44 home loss to Seattle, which two days earlier had lost at home by 29 points to Montana State. The Lady Griz missed 30 of their final 36 shots and finished at 24.6 percent shooting, the team’s worst performance since 2009.
Montana found its scoring touch Tuesday against MSU Northern, winning 80-32. The Lady Griz shot 50.7 percent and made twice as many field goals (34-17) as they did against the Redhawks on two fewer shots. And it wasn’t all about the opponent Montana was facing.
“We had them overmatched, but we also made a lot of the same shots we were missing (on Sunday),” said coach Robin Selvig. “Because of it we’re in a lot better frame of mind going into Thursday’s game. We’re a lot better mentally.”
Nobody embodied the change from pressing against Seattle to just playing against MSU Northern more than Mekayla Isaak, who was 2 for 16 in Montana’s final exhibition game against Great Falls and on Sunday against Seattle.
She hit a 16-foot jump shot — smooth, not sent on a rope toward the front of the rim — midway through the first quarter, and the rest of the game things looked easy for her. She would hit her first five shots and finish with 12 points, six rebounds and five assists. What had looked forced looked natural.
“Mekayla played really well. It was an impressive evening for her. She played well in all areas. She had five assists and looked confident,” said Selvig.
“Like everyone else, it didn’t even look like she was taking the same shot. I don’t know if it was the first game and the kids were too excited or what.”
Montana was solid across the statistical line. Most of that can more easily be attributed to the mismatch of the opponent than can shooting, because both games produced plenty of the same open looks.
The Lady Griz outrebounded the Skylights 43-20 and gave up just three offensive boards, and finished with just seven turnovers while collecting 22 assists. Five players scored in double figures, led by Rachel Staudacher’s 14.
Along come the Tigers: In last year’s matchup against Pacific at Stockton, Calif., Montana went more than 10 minutes spanning the first and second halves without a field goal, and that allowed the Tigers to turn a 25-21 deficit into a runaway victory.
The Tigers built a 49-29 advantage midway through the second half and cruised to the victory from there.
It was part of a 21-win season for Pacific that ended in the second round of the WNIT with an 87-79 home loss to Sacramento State. It was the Tigers’ fourth straight trip to the WNIT.
Lynne Roberts, who coached Pacific for nine seasons, turned that success into the head job at Utah, and Bradley Davis, an assistant for Roberts all nine seasons, was promoted to head coach.
The continuity seems to have paid off, as did the return of senior forward Erin Butler, who is averaging 16 points and seven rebounds through two games.
Pacific, picked sixth out of 10 teams in the preseason WCC poll, opened the season with an 80-74 victory at Cal State Bakersfield, a team picked second in the WAC, then won 66-53 at UC Davis on Monday.
The common thread between the two games: These Tigers are closers. They outscored the Roadrunners 25-14 in the fourth quarter to rally for their season-opening victory, then held the Aggies to seven fourth-quarter points on Monday to finish off a comeback from a four-point halftime deficit.
Pacific is shooting just 37.7 percent through two games, they are a 51 percent free-throw shooting team, and they turn it over more than 15 times per game, but they rebound it well and have balanced scoring. And most important, they are 2-0, with both wins coming on the road.
“They are the real deal,” said Selvig, who got a courtside look at Pacific last season. “They have a new coach, but they return a good crew and are playing real good basketball right now.
“They are quick, they shoot the three, and they are really good off the dribble. And good defensively. I’ve been really impressed watching them on video.”
And then the Pilots: Portland, under second-year coach Cheryl Sorenson, is off to a 1-1 start. The Pilots, behind 19 points from freshman guard Ellie Woerner, opened their season with a 73-54 victory over Willamette.
Then came a 94-50 trouncing at the hands of No. 7 Oregon State Monday night. The Beavers raced out to leads of 27-8 after the first quarter and 47-16 at the half, and forced the Pilots into 29.8 percent shooting and 19 turnovers. Woerner, with nine points, again led Portland in scoring.
Portland, which lost 13 games by 10 or fewer points, went 4-26 last season, which included a 69-55 home loss to Montana. The Pilots lost their top four scorers off that team, a quartet that scored 82 percent of Portland’s point last season.
Upcoming: Montana will play a pair of games Thanksgiving weekend at Lehigh’s Christmas City Classic in Bethlehem, Pa. The Lady Griz will face the host Mountain Hawks on Saturday, Nov. 28, at 2 p.m. (MT) and either Drexel or Villanova at 10 a.m. (MT) on Sunday, Nov. 29.