Mayan Calendar Says: Bring on the Lady Lumberjacks

By JOEL CARLSON for GoGriz.com

The Montana women’s basketball team opens Big Sky Conference play Thursday when its hosts Northern Arizona. The Lady Griz and Lumberjacks tip off at Dahlberg Arena at 7 p.m.

Game-day primer: Montana enters league play with a 6-3 nonconference record. … The Lady Griz matched Montana State (6-2) for the most nonconference wins in the Big Sky with six. … Montana ranks No. 1 in the country in fewest turnovers per game at 11.6. … Northern Arizona opens league play with a record of 1-8. … The Lumberjacks’ lone win was a one-point victory at Cal State Fullerton. … Montana’s last outing was a 58-56 victory over Denver on Sunday at Dahlberg Arena. … NAU’s last game was a 62-44 home loss to Utah Valley on Saturday. … Northern Arizona is under first-year coach Sue Darling. … Montana will remain at home and host Sacramento State at 2 p.m. Saturday. The Hornets open league play at Montana State Thursday night. … Northern Arizona continues on to Bozeman and will face the Bobcats Saturday afternoon.

Live coverage: Thursday’s game will be aired locally on 101.5 FM and 1290 AM, with Tom Stage and Dick Slater on the broadcast. Fans outside of listening range can catch the audio stream through the All-Access page at GoGriz.com.

Game Notes: See the Lady Griz Roster, Team Photos, Cumulative Season Stats andmore.

Video streaming will be available through Big Sky TV. A link to that service can be found on the women’s basketball schedule page at GoGriz.com. A link to live stats is available in the same location.

Water cooler talking points:

1. The Mayan calendar and Lady Griz basketball: If the Mayan calendar is accurate and the apocalypse arrives Friday, know that Lady Griz coach Robin Selvig is content with what he’s done over his coaching career.

“It’s been a good run. I am privileged to have had a lot of really good kids and players,” he says, then gets serious. “We’ve passed a few of those end-of-the-world dates, so I don’t waste any energy on that.”

He is dismissive enough of the idea that he has already begun initial preparations for his team’s potential game Saturday against Sacramento State, should the whole Mayan thing be a hoax. “Yes, I am actively preparing for Saturday’s game,” he reports.

2. Getting off to a good start at home: By the time the second weekend of March rolls around, the Big Sky Conference regular-season champion will be known for having come up with some big road wins the previous two months. What will go largely unnoticed is that that team will have certainly taken care of business at home as well.

And that means winning the games at home that need to be won. Montana was picked third in the preseason coaches’ poll and this week is hosting Northern Arizona, which was picked ninth, and Sacramento State, which was selected seventh. Big Sky Conference champions win these games.

“I don’t know if ‘critical’ is the word (for these two games), but they are certainly important,” Selvig said. “It’s going to be a long schedule, so you can never put too much into one game, but you certainly want to do well at home.”

3. Two games, two first-year coaches on the visiting bench: In Sunday’s 58-56 win over Denver, Selvig, in his 35th year at Montana, went up against first-year DU coach Kerry Cremeans, who is in her first year as a head coach.

Thursday will feature another first-year coach in Northern Arizona’s Sue Darling. Unlike Cremeans, Darling has head-coaching experience. She coached Air Force to an undistinguished 12-70 record from 1999 and 2002.

“We won’t be familiar with (NAU’s new) system, but we will be familiar with the kids they have,” Selvig said. “I don’t know if it’s good or bad if you know a coach and their program really well, because in those cases they know you just as well.”

Darling replaced Laurie Kelly, who coached the Lumberjacks for nine seasons. Kelly and NAU had four wins over Montana in her nine years, the most memorable of those a 64-59 win over the Lady Griz in the semifinals of the 2007 Big Sky Conference tournament in Missoula when Montana was 27-2.

“Laurie had some really good teams,” Selvig said. “They were always aggressive defensively, but they were never the same offensively. She had some patient teams and some more wide-open teams.”

Kelly is in her first year as coach at Gustavus Adolphus, one of the nation’s elite academic schools located in St. Peter, Minn. The Gusties are 6-2 this season and a perfect 5-0 in Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference games. As befits the school’s academics-first, athletics-second approach, Gustavus last played on Dec. 8 and won’t have another game until Jan. 2.

4. Patton’s last stand: One of the best scorers in the Big Sky Conference over the last half decade is NAU senior Amy Patton. She is being just as productive in her final season under first-year coach Sue Darling, averaging 21.0 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, both team highs. Her scoring average leads the Big Sky and ranks 14th nationally.

Patton’s 41 points in NAU’s 95-83 home loss to Bradley last month tied the Big Sky Conference single-game record, now shared by Patton, Montana assistant coach Shannon (Cate) Schweyen (1991), Portland State’s Kelsey Kahle (2007) and Montana State’s Katie Bussey (2012).

Patton has averaged 15.8 points and 6.5 rebounds in her six games against Montana, though she has struggled in Missoula. She has averaged 14 points in her three games at Dahlberg Arena, but those points have come on 26.1 percent shooting.

“She is a very talented scorer. She can really get it cooking, and you don’t want her to have one of those nights,” Selvig said.

“We have a team defense, so slowing her down will never be on anyone’s particular shoulders. You can’t forget about the other players either, but Patton has to be somewhat of a focus.”

5. Montana is ready to take off: The Lady Griz are on the verge of going from good to being really good. The missing ingredient: Some consistent shooting from multiple players.

Remember the heady days of the Lady Griz Classic? When Montana shot 45.0 percent and scored 76 and 71 points in wins over Idaho and Tennessee State? The tight games that go down to the last second — Wyoming 58, Montana 56; Montana 58, Denver 56 — are fun too, but those came down to the final possession because the Lady Griz shot 36.8 percent in those two games.

Everything else is clicking. Montana has had more assists than turnovers in each of its last six games and has 132 assists this season against just 104 turnovers. And teams are averaging just 57.3 points per game on 38.8 percent shooting against the Lady Griz defense. UM’s scoring defense ranks second in the league to Idaho State (53.8/g).

6. How did this come about? Montana ranks 342nd out of 343 Division I women’s basketball teams in defending the 3-point line. The team’s last five opponents have shot a scorching 46.9 percent from the arc, and for the season UM’s opponents have shot 41.0 percent. Only Western Michigan (.419) ranks lower.

7. At the other end of the spectrum: Montana ranks No. 1 in the country in fewest turnovers per game at 11.6, ninth in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.27), 15th in turnover margin (-7.44/g) and 18th in blocked shots (5.9/g).

8. Montana swept the most recent Big Sky Conference player of the week awards. Senior Alyssa Smith, who scored 12 points, nine in the second half, in Montana’s 58-56 win over Denver Sunday was the official Big Sky Conference player of the week. Senior Katie Baker, who matched Smith’s 12 points and added six rebounds, was named the College Sports Madness Big Sky player of the week.

Neither had typical player-of-the-week numbers, but Montana was the only Big Sky team with a win against a Division I opponent last week on a pretty light schedule across the league, with most schools having finals week.

9. ESPN and College Sports Madness have both come out with early NCAA tournament brackets. They don’t mean much in regards to the Big Sky Conference, since only the league’s tournament champion will get in (with a seed somewhere in the 13-15 range), but they are fun to look at.

ESPN has Montana State getting a No. 14 seed and facing No. 3 California in a first-round game at Spokane, Wash. College Sports Madness has Northern Colorado as a No. 15 seed facing No. 2 Georgia, with the site not specified.

Big Sky Conference notes:

1. League play opens in full force Thursday with five games on the schedule (NAU at UM, SAC at MSU, PSU at ISU, EWU at WSU, SUU at UND). Five more games will follow on Saturday (SAC at UM, NAU at MSU, EWU at ISU, PSU at WSU, UND at UNC).

2. Has anyone noticed what former Lady Griz point guard Lexie Nelson is doing for Eastern Washington as a redshirt sophomore? She ranks second in the league in scoring to Amy Patton at 15.4 points per game. She makes her Eagles debut against her former teammates in Cheney, Wash., on Jan. 3. Should be spicy.

3. If you weren’t sitting in Dahlberg Arena Thursday night, you would probably want to be sitting in Reed Gym in Pocatello, Idaho, for a game that’s going to tell us plenty when Portland State (5-3) plays at Idaho State (5-3).

The Vikings are coming off a disastrous 2011-12 season that saw them 1) get picked to win the league, then 2) go 4-9 after Jan. 12 to miss the six-team Big Sky tournament. With four starters back in 2012-13, Sherri Murrell’s team is off to a solid start, including a double-overtime win at Oregon (though PSU lost at home to Gonzaga on Dec. 7 in a game that could have really signaled something special was returning to the Park Blocks).

Meanwhile, Idaho State won the league last season by three games and was the heavy favorite this year among the league coaches.

4. The hottest team entering league play? North Dakota, winner of four straight under first-year coach Travis Brewster. Big opportunity for UND to make a first-year splash in the Big Sky when it hosts Southern Utah Thursday and plays at Northern Colorado Saturday.

More on Northern Arizona: Amy Patton is carrying a heavy load of NAU’s offense, but senior Tyler Stephens-Jenkins (10.9/g) and sophomore Raven Anderson (9.7/g), a 6-2 center, are also adding a lot. … The Lumberjacks rank in the bottom 10 percent in the nation in both scoring defense (72.8/g) and rebounding margin (-8.1/g). … After giving up 78.0 points per game through its first six games, Northern Arizona has allowed 62.3 in its last three. … NAU went 9-20 overall last season and finished eighth in the Big Sky at 4-12. … Patton is fewer than 100 points from becoming the Lumberjacks’ all-time leading scorer.

Series history: Montana leads the all-time series with Northern Arizona 45-11, though the teams have split their four meetings the last two years. The Lady Griz have a 27-3 advantage at home, with wins in the last five matchups at Dahlberg Arena.

Montana three-dot notes: Katie Baker went 5 for 11 and scored 12 points in Sunday’s game against Denver. Must have been a win. Baker is shooting 48.0 percent and averaging 13.8 points in Montana’s six wins and shooting 12.0 percent and averaging 2.7 points in UM’s three losses. … Baker blocked 16 shots through Montana’s first four games. She has recorded just two the last five games. … With her 12 points Sunday, Baker passed Dawn Silliker (1984-88) on the Lady Griz career scoring list and moved into 23rd place with 1,091 points. Next up: Jodi Hinrichs (1990-95), who scored 1,094. … Kenzie De Boer has gone 16 for 31 (.516) from the field the last two games. … De Boer is 42 points from becoming the 29th player in program history with 1,000 career points. With a big week she could reach 1,000 at home. More likely she will do it on the road when Montana travels to Eastern Washington and Portland State right after New Year’s. … Alyssa Smith from 3-point range the first eight games: 2 for 12. On Sunday against Denver: 4 for 8. It was her fourth career game with four threes. … Torry Hill has had a 1:1 or better assist-to-turnover ratio every game this season and has 37 assists through nine games against just 21 turnovers for the Big Sky’s best assist-to-turnover ratio. … Hill ranks third in the Big Sky at 4.1 assists per game. … Hill is 3 for 27 from 3-point range through the team’s last six games. … Kellie Cole ranks third in the Big Sky in free throw percentage (.864). She has connected on 19 of 22 attempts. … Carly Selvig is shooting 56.3 percent from the field the last four games. … Selvig ranks second on the team to Hill in assists with 16 while playing just 14.2 minutes per game. … Montana has gone 9 for 25 (.360) from the line the last two games to send its season percentage tumbling to .627, 10th in the 11-team Big Sky, ahead of only Weber State (.590). … The Lady Griz were outrebounded by 18 in their last two games and still could have won them both because ball security. … When Montana came back from a 30-28 halftime deficit against Denver, it marked the first time this season the Lady Griz have trailed at the break and won (out of three tries).

Upcoming: Montana will host Sacramento State Saturday at 2 p.m. at Dahlberg Arena.

Montana Sports Information  —  GoGriz.com