By JOEL CARLSON
The Montana women’s basketball team, on a modest two-game winning streak after dropping four straight, will be on the road this week with games at Southern Utah and Northern Arizona.
The Lady Griz (13-9, 6-5 BSC) will face the Thunderbirds (2-19, 0-11 BSC) on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Cedar City, Utah, and the Lumberjacks (6-16, 2-9 BSC) at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday at Flagstaff, Ariz.
Coverage: Both games this week will air on KMPT 930 AM, with Tom Stage and Dick Slater calling the action. Free video streaming is available through Eversport.tv. Saturday’s game will be on FOX Sports Arizona (Dish: 415; DirecTV: 686), with tape delay at 11 p.m. on FOX College Sports Pacific.
Where they stand: Montana’s home sweep last week of Sacramento State and Portland State has left Montana alone in sixth place in the Big Sky Conference standings.
Southern Utah, still seeking its first league win, is in 12th place and hasn’t won a game against an NCAA-recognized opponent since Dec. 12.
Northern Arizona, which has lost seven of its last eight, is alone in 10th place, ahead of Southern Utah and Portland State (3-18, 1-9 BSC).
Most recently: Montana snapped a four-game losing streak with a 90-83 win over Sacramento State and a 76-57 win over Portland State last week.
On Thursday, the Lady Griz built a 15-point, third-quarter lead on the Hornets and held off Sac State’s fourth-quarter comeback attempts. On Saturday, Montana and Portland State were tied at 50 entering the fourth quarter before the Lady Griz outscored the Vikings 26-7 in the final period to pull away.
Southern Utah and Northern Arizona both got swept on the Idaho-Eastern Washington road trip last week.
The Thunderbirds led the Vandals 15-14 after one quarter on Thursday, then got outscored 79-33 the rest of the way to lose 93-48. On Saturday at Cheney, Southern Utah led Eastern Washington 43-41 through three quarter before getting outscored 23-10 in the fourth to lose 64-53.
The Lumberjacks had a similar experience. They led the Eagles 26-24 at the break, then gave up 48 second-half points to lose 72-65. At Moscow, NAU trailed by just two after the first quarter but got outscored by 15 the rest of the way to fall 76-59.
The first meeting: On New Year’s Eve, Montana used 29 points from Kayleigh Valley and 26 from McCalle Feller to run past Northern Arizona 81-58. The Lady Griz, who shot 51.7 percent, used a 25-14 third quarter to blow open what had been a six-point game at the half.
Rene Coggins, a perfect 5 for 5 from 3-point range, led Northern Arizona with 19 points.
Two days later, Montana outscored Southern Utah 21-12 through one quarter, but the Thunderbirds didn’t go away and actually outscored the Lady Griz over the final three quarters to lose by just six, 66-60. Valley and Feller combined for 40 points, and Montana was +9 at the free throw line.
Jessica Richardson had 18 points and 12 rebounds for the Thunderbirds, who had 18 assists and just 10 turnovers, a better ratio than Montana’s 12:14.
* Losing streak ends: Montana lost in the final second (singular, not seconds) to North Dakota and Eastern Washington, and held a three-point, fourth-quarter lead before losing at Montana State. The only blowout in Montana’s now-ended four-game losing streak was a 78-61 loss at Idaho.
Still, last week’s wins over Sacramento State and Portland State were pretty sweet.
“I think the games we lost the ladies fully realized we could have won a number of them, so hopefully you keep your confidence,” said coach Robin Selvig, who has still never lost five games in a row in his 38-year career. “I think they know if we’d done a few things differently, we could have won.
“But you feel a lot better when you win, so it was great to get back on track. You can play great and lose, and you still feel lousy. You just feel a lot better when you win.”
* Feller still out: McCalle Feller rolled her ankle early in the fourth quarter in Thursday’s win over Sacramento State. She limped off the court, not to return, and she did not play in Saturday’s win over Portland State.
Her ankle still looks like a badly bruised piece of fruit, so she is doubtful for Thursday’s game at Southern Utah. She’ll be on the trip, with a possible return by Saturday.
* Sims named Player of the Week: Alycia Sims, who averaged 23 points on 63.3 percent shooting and 15.5 rebounds against Sacramento State and Portland State, was named the Big Sky Conference Player of the Week on Tuesday. It was the first time in her career earning Player of the Week honors.
Sims had 17 points, 16 rebounds and six assists, all career highs at the time, against the Hornets. Two days later, with Feller out of the lineup, Sims hit 13 of 17 shots and scored a career-high 29 points. She also grabbed a game-high 15 rebounds, dished out three assists and blocked a career-high three shots.
* Valley closing in: Kayleigh Valley begins the week with 971 career points. Considering she is averaging 20.1 points per game, odds are she’ll become Montana’s 32nd 1,000-point scorer before the Lady Griz return home.
Valley totaled 150 points (4.4/g) as a freshman, 378 (11.5/g) as a sophomore and has 443 so far this season.
Only two players have averaged more than 20 points in a season in Lady Griz history. Shannon Cate did it three times, with a program high of 23.3 in 1991-92, Jeanne McNulty did it once.
* An eye on Reno: Montana is in sixth place, and only four weeks of regular-season games remain before the Big Sky tournament in Reno. So, can the Lady Griz still play themselves back into the top four and earn a bye to the tournament’s quarterfinal round?
Montana State (17-5, 10-1 BSC), Eastern Washington (16-7, 10-1 BSC) and Idaho (17-6, 9-2 BSC) are probably unreachable without an epic collapse on their part. That leaves Weber State (15-6, 7-3 BSC) as the lowest-hanging fruit.
The good news is the Lady Griz get the Wildcats in Missoula on Feb. 27 in the teams’ only meeting this season, which could be an important tiebreaker. And the Wildcats end the season with a brutal schedule: at Montana State and Montana, home for Idaho and Eastern Washington.
Of course that projection totally discounts North Dakota (11-11, 7-4 BSC), which has won six straight games to move ahead of Montana and into fifth place, and even with Weber State in the win column.
The Fighting Hawks won at Missoula in mid-January, a game that started UND’s current winning streak, and get the Lady Griz in Grand Forks the last week of the season.
* Vining enjoying special senior season: Her teammates may keep winning Big Sky Player of the Week awards (Kayleigh Valley twice, McCalle Feller, Alycia Sims), but it’s been Haley Vining who’s been setting them up for success.
Vining had 62 assists through her first three injury-riddled seasons in a Lady Griz uniform. Finally healthy and getting quality minutes, she has 89 this year. Her average of 4.0 per game ranks third in the Big Sky behind Montana State’s Hannah Caudill (5.6/g) and Eastern Washington’s Tisha Phillips (4.7/g).
But neither of those players protects the ball as well as Vining, who had 15 assists and just three turnovers last week, with a brilliant nine-assist, two-turnover game against Sac State. She has 34 turnovers for the season, compared to 73 for Phillips and 68 for Caudill.
Vining leads the Big Sky in assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.6 (no other player is 2.0 or above) and ranks 10th nationally.
* Sweet offensive execution: Lost in the water-cooler talk about losing streaks snapped, Sacramento State’s crazy style of play, McCalle Feller’s injury and player of the week awards is that Montana ran some pretty nice offense last week.
Montana had a season-high 25 assists in Thursday’s win over Sacramento State, not a surprise given the Lady Griz made a season-high 35 field goals. They were even better on Saturday, assisting on 17 of their first 18 field goals and finishing with 22 on 28 makes for the game.
Montana shot 46.7 percent against the Hornets, the team’s best shooting percentage since Jan. 7, and 42.4 percent against the Vikings.
Montana notes: The Lady Griz lead the series with Southern Utah 12-1 and are 5-1 at Cedar City. … Montana is 51-11 against Northern Arizona, 20-7 against NAU at Flagstaff. … Alycia Sims’ 16 rebounds against Sacramento State, four off the UM single-game record (Greta Koss, 1996-97), are tied for the fourth-highest total in the Big Sky this season. Mia Loyd grabbed a league-leading 19 in North Dakota’s loss to Tennessee-Martin. … How good was Sims on Saturday? Her efficiency rating was 45. The next highest rating this year was Kayleigh Valley’s 35 at Wyoming. … Hannah Doran made her first career start Saturday in place of McCalle Feller and played a career-high 39 minutes. … Haley Vining’s four 3-pointers, all coming in the second half against Portland State, matched the career high she set earlier this season against Portland. … Saturday was the first game Feller has missed since sitting out against Idaho and UC Irvine at the Lady Griz Classic in early December of her sophomore year. … With Feller sitting, it stalls her quest to reach 1,000 career points. She is sitting on 927, notable considering she had just eight her freshman year. … Sims is averaging 13.2 rebounds the last five games. … Valley has scored 15 or more points in 17 straight games. … Mekayla Isaak matched a career high with five assists against Portland State (which matched the number of free throws she missed in six attempts against the Vikings; she is 4 for 14 from the line in league).
Game notes: Southern Utah has wins this year against Cal State Northridge and Air Force. And a 99-37 victory over Bristol University, a school located in Anaheim, Calif., that the NCAA does not recognize as a countable opponent. … Of SUU’s 11 Big Sky losses, seven have been by 12 points or fewer. … The Thunderbirds’ season field goal percentage of .335 ranks 339th out of 344 NCAA teams. … Northern Arizona’s Alyssa Rader, frontrunner for Big Sky Freshman of the Year, is averaging 13.4 points and 9.1 rebounds per game. … NAU has a winning record (5-4) at home this season. … The Lumberjacks’ Big Sky wins this season have both come at home: 57-48 over Southern Utah and 63-62 over Idaho State.
Thursday in the Big Sky: EWU at UND, UI at UNC, MSU at NAU, UM at SUU, ISU at PSU, WSU at SAC
Noteworthy (and this is incredible): Of Idaho State’s 10 Big Sky games this season, eight have been decided by four points or fewer. Here’s to hoping his team gives coach Seton Sobolewski a comfortable win at the Stott Center.
Saturday in the Big Sky: UI at UND, EWU at UNC, UM at NAU, MSU at SUU, WSU at PSU, ISU at SAC
Noteworthy: With his team leading 89-65, in possession of the ball and with the shot clock turned off, Idaho coach Jon Newlee ran a play to get his team a 3-pointer with two seconds left in the Vandals’ 92-65 win over North Dakota back on Dec. 31. Those teams meet on Saturday in Grand Forks, where memories tend to run long.
Montana Sports Information