By JOEL CARLSON
The Montana women’s basketball team, in fifth place in the Big Sky Conference standings through three of 10 weeks of league games, will play two of the teams sitting ahead of it on the road this week.
The Lady Griz (11-6, 4-2 BSC) will play at third-place Idaho (12-5, 4-1 BSC) on Thursday at 7 p.m. (MT) in Moscow and at second-place Eastern Washington (11-6, 5-0 BSC) on Saturday at 3 p.m. (MT) in Cheney.
Coverage: Thursday’s game will air locally on KMPT 930 AM, Saturday’s on KGVO 101.5 FM/1290 AM, with Tom Stage and Dick Slater calling the action. Both games will have free video coverage through Eversport and live stats, links to which can be found on gogriz.com.
How they got here: Montana is a handful of plays away from being unbeaten in league and atop the Big Sky Conference standings. Instead the Lady Griz are looking up at four teams, the result of an 83-75 overtime loss at Sacramento State and Saturday’s buzzer-beating 61-59 home loss to North Dakota.
Idaho entered league atop the late-December Big Sky power poll but slipped slightly after losing 74-66 at home to Eastern Washington. The Vandals rebounded with strong road wins last week, winning at Northern Arizona, 72-51, and Southern Utah, 72-61. Idaho has won five of its last six games.
Eastern Washington, left for dead after losing nine players off last year’s team, joins Weber State as the surprise teams of 2015-16. All five league wins have been by 10 points or less, but they are all victories, something only Montana State (13-4, 6-0 BSC) can also say at this point.
Early gut check: Montana may be sitting in fifth place in the Big Sky standings, but the Lady Griz are just two games out of first with seven weeks to go — one week of upheaval could drastically reshape everything — so any weighty proclamations are premature. But we’ll do it anyway.
It’s a big 10-day stretch for Montana. After playing at Idaho and Eastern Washington on the road this week, the Lady Griz travel to Bozeman next week to play at current first-place Montana State. It’s a big chance to effect big changes in the standings, for better or for worse.
Just don’t expect 38th-year coach Robin Selvig, who’s seen enough league races to know there are plenty of games still to be played, to get overly worked up about anything beyond the game at hand.
“It will be a good challenge against three good teams and a chance to get some big wins. Any win you can get on the road is a big one,” he said. “We’ll start with Idaho and see what we can do there.”
Adding to this week’s importance: With a tight battle expected for the top four spots in the regular-season standings — those teams get a bye to the quarterfinals at the Big Sky tournament — head-to-head tiebreakers are always important to hold.
Because of the league’s unbalanced schedule, Montana will play Idaho and Eastern Washington just once this season, on the road this week.
If the season ended today: Montana, the No. 5 seed, would have to play an opening-round game on Monday at the Big Sky tournament in Reno the second week of March and be four wins in six days from winning the championship. The Lady Griz would face the No. 12 seed in the opening round.
And if ESPN.com is accurate, Montana State, as a No. 15 seed, will make the NCAA tournament and face No. 2 Texas in Austin. That would be the second straight year of a tough draw for the Big Sky winner. Last spring No. 16 Montana had to play a first-round game at No. 1 Notre Dame.
Uprising of the underrated: Montana State, picked fifth in the preseason coaches’ poll, is atop the Big Sky standings. Eastern Washington, picked ninth is in second. Idaho, picked sixth, and Weber State, picked 10th, are tied for third.
Three Montana-Idaho storylines
- For as much success as Idaho coach Jon Newlee, who coached at Idaho State before moving upstate to Moscow, has had in his career, Montana coach Robin Selvig has continued to hold the upper hand when their teams meet.
Newlee has won just three times in 23 tries against Montana, winning regular-season games with Idaho State in 2005-06 and 2007-08, and with Idaho in 2010-11.
- Alycia Sims had just three games last season when she scored more than eight points. One was against Wyoming. The other two came against Idaho.
She scored 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting in Montana’s 87-74 win at Moscow. In that game the Lady Griz scored the final 13 points to cap a rally from a 48-37 halftime deficit. In Montana’s 81-68 win in Missoula, Sims scored 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting.
- Montana went 4 for 19 from 3-point range in its loss at Sacramento State, 3 for 20 from the arc in Thursday’s win over Northern Colorado and was 1 for 12 through the first 27 minutes of Saturday’s loss to North Dakota. Collectively that’s 8 for 51.
Primarily behind McCalle Feller, Montana closed the game against the Fighting Hawks going 5 for 8, and the Lady Griz will likely need that kind of shooting to continue Thursday against Idaho, a team that relies heavily on the 3-point shot and is capable of explosive scoring nights.
The Vandals rank third in the nation at 10.4 makes per game, behind only Sacramento State (11.3/g) and Saint Francis (11.1/g). Idaho dropped 17 triples on Cal State Northridge and Iowa State earlier this season, and went 15 for 37 from the arc in Thursday’s 72-51 win at Northern Arizona.
History: Montana leads the all-time series against Idaho 41-8 and has won the last six meetings between the schools since the Vandals’ (and Newlee’s) 69-56 win at Moscow in 2010-11. The Lady Griz are 16-6 at Moscow.
Three Montana-Eastern Washington storylines
- Has there been a better sister combination in Big Sky history than Hayley and Delaney Hodgins, daughters of the former Karen Murray, 1,745-point career scorer at Washington? They are the team’s only returning starters from a year ago and are averaging more than 35 points this season.
Hayley, the Big Sky Freshman of the Year in 2012-13 and first-team All-Big Sky last season, is averaging 19.8 points. Delaney is adding 15.4 points and 6.9 rebounds. One of the two has led the Eagles in scoring every game this season but one.
- Eastern Washington, coached by the perennially underappreciated Wendy Schuller, has defeated Montana three straight times at Reese Court (by a total of 13 points). The Eagles are 6-7 against the Lady Griz the last six seasons, which is pretty solid considering Montana leads the series 71-17.
- Montana and Eastern Washington both rely heavily on their starters to produce their points. In addition to the Hodgins sisters, Ashli Payne, a transfer from Umpqua (Ore.) CC, is averaging 11.2 points, and Tisha Phillips is averaging 10.2 points. All play more than 30 minutes per game.
EWU’s leading scorer off the bench is Violet Kapri Morrow. She averages just 3.8 points.
More than half of Montana’s 68.6 points per game comes from just two players, Kayleigh Valley (20.0/g) and McCalle Feller (18.1/g).
Montana’s reserves have shown flashes — Hannah Doran scored a career-high 18 points at Sacramento State, Sierra Anderson had 16 against Pacific — but the team’s bench scored just a dozen points in two games last week, four against Northern Colorado, eight against North Dakota.
Doran, at 6.1 points, is the team’s leading scorer off the bench, which has been thinned to four with the ongoing unavailability of Maddie Keast (foot).
History: Montana leads the all-time series with Eastern Washington 71-17 and has won the last two meetings, including a 55-51 victory in the semifinals of last year’s Big Sky tournament. The Lady Griz are 26-12 at Cheney.
Montana 58, Northern Colorado 46: The Lady Griz led 28-18 at the half but did not get comfortable separation until back-to-back 3-pointers by McCalle Feller and Haley Vining early in the fourth quarter put Montana up 13. … The Bears had just five offensive rebounds, the fewest Montana has allowed since holding Portland to three back on Nov. 22. … UNC, which was making more than eight threes per game, was held to just four on 10 attempts. … Kayleigh Valley scored 20 points, her fifth straight game with 20 or more points. … Haley Vining matched a career high with seven assists. And she finished with no turnovers. … Montana went 3 for 20 from the arc, its second-lowest shooting percentage of the season, ahead of only the 1-for-13 effort at Colorado State. … The Lady Griz had 16 assists and just eight turnovers, the fifth time this season they’ve had at least twice as many assists as turnovers. … The 18 first-half points allowed were the fewest given up by Montana in the first half this season.
North Dakota 61, Montana 59: After McCalle Feller tied the score at 59 with a 3-pointer with 17 seconds left, the Fighting Hawks won it on a buzzer-beater. Inbounding from under its own basket with 0.5 seconds left, Makailah Dyer found Mia Loyd to give North Dakota its first victory at Dahlberg Arena. … Montana led for just 72 seconds, early in the first quarter, the shortest amount of time it’s held a lead this season, including during its 27-point loss at Lehigh and 32-point loss at Colorado State. … Montana shot 25 percent in the first half, 8 for 32, to fall behind 25-19 at the half, the team’s lowest halftime total of the season and second-lowest scoring half behind the 16 scored in the second half in the season-opening loss to Seattle. … McCalle Feller had six points at the half. She would finish with 31, including 16 in the fourth quarter. … The Lady Griz four times tied it in the fourth quarter but never held a lead after going up 4-2. … Montana’s two-point lead was its smallest in a game this season. … Montana’s nine assists were one off a season low and its 34.9 percent shooting its coldest since losing at Colorado State on 23.1 percent shooting in early December. … Feller, Kayleigh Valley and Hannah Doran combined to shoot 20 for 43 (.465). Their teammates were 2 for 20 (.100). … It was just the third time Montana has lost at home to a Big Sky opponent since the start of the 2012-13 season.
The race for 1,000: Kayleigh Valley has scored 868 career points, McCalle Feller 862. Both have 40 double-digit scoring games in their careers. Both should reach 1,000 career points this season (maybe in the same game?), making them the 32nd and 33rd players to do so in program history.
That would make it six straight seasons that Club 1,000 has added a new member. Sarah Ena made it in 2010-11, Katie Baker in 2011-12 (in the final game of her junior year), Kenzie De Boer in 2012-13, Torry Hill in 2013-14 and Kellie Rubel last season.
Trending: McCalle Feller’s 31-point game Saturday was her third time in the 30s since Dec. 19. She holds the three best scoring games in the Big Sky this season. She also scored 34 against Florida Atlantic and 32 against Utah State at the Lady Griz Classic. … Kayleigh Valley has scored 15 or more points in 12 straight games and leads the Big Sky in scoring (20.0/g), just ahead of Hayley Hodgins (19.6/g) and Feller (18.1/g). … Montana’s point guards have struggled shooting the ball. Haley Vining is 2 for 19 from 3-point range in Big Sky games, Sierra Anderson is 3 for 15 from the field the last four games. … After turning the ball over 20 times at Portland State and 25 at Sacramento State, Montana had eight against Northern Colorado, five against North Dakota, a season low.
Thursday in the Big Sky Conference: UM at UI, MSU at EWU, NAU at UND, SUU at UNC
Thursday notes: Either Montana State or Eastern Washington is picking up its first league loss when the Bobcats play at Cheney. … Will North Dakota use Saturday’s win at Montana as a springboard for the rest of the season, or will the Fighting Hawks return to their maddening inconsistency?
Saturday in the Big Sky Conference: UM at EWU, MSU at UI, SUU at UND, NAU at UNC, ISU at WSU, SAC at PSU
Saturday notes: Since entering league ranked No. 3 in the Big Sky power poll, Idaho State is 1-4 and averaging 53 points per game. The Bengals needed a late miss to hold off Portland State on Saturday. … On the other hand, Weber State continues to make believers out of the sceptics. Hard to see the Wildcats not improving to 5-1 in league, with a cushy schedule ahead. The Wildcats don’t play a game against one of the other top five teams in the league until Feb. 25. … Sacramento State takes on the team it beat 132-91 back on Jan. 2.
Upcoming: Montana plays at Montana State on Saturday, Jan. 30, then plays five of its next seven at home.
Montana Sports Information