Lady Griz Open Big Sky Play on the Road

By JOEL CARLSON

The Montana women’s basketball team will open Big Sky Conference play this week with games at Northern Arizona and Sacramento State. The Lady Griz will face the Lumberjacks Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at Flagstaff and the Hornets Saturday at 3 p.m. (MT) at Sacramento.

Quick hitters: Montana is 6-3, Northern Arizona is 3-6, Sacramento State is 8-1. All three teams will be playing their first Big Sky Conference games Thursday. The Hornets host Montana State Thursday in their league opener. … After opening the season 6-1, Montana lost its final two games before Christmas, to Temple and Wyoming. The last time the Lady Griz lost back-to-back games was at the close of the 2011-12 season. … Montana leads the Big Sky in both scoring defense (58.8/g) and field goal percentage defense (.357). … NAU senior guard Amanda Frost, at 19.2 points per game, ranks second in the Big Sky in scoring. … The Lumberjacks lost at home Monday night to LIU Brooklyn 78-72. It was NAU’s third straight loss. … Sac State is unbeaten (5-0) at the Hornets Nest this season and has won seven straight home games dating back to last season. … Sacramento State is coached by Bunky Harkleroad, who replaced Jamie Craighead in the fall after Craighead took the job at San Jose State. … The Hornets rank in the top 10 nationally in six categories, including first in 3-point field goals (14.4/g) and steals (16.4/g).

Series histories: Montana owns a 47-11 record against Northern Arizona, with an 18-7 edge in games at Flagstaff. The Lady Griz swept the Lumberjacks last season, winning 79-71 in overtime in Missoula and 59-51 at Flagstaff.

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Photo by AustinSmith

Montana is 33-2 against Sacramento State, 15-2 against the Hornets in Sacramento. The Lady Griz won the first 27 games between the teams before the Hornets broke through with a 100-83 victory at Sacramento in 2009-10. Sac State won 80-71 at the Hornets Nest last year in both teams’ regular-season finale. One week later the teams met in the semifinals of the Big Sky tournament at Missoula, and Montana won 74-53.

Coverage: Thursday’s game will be aired locally on KMPT 930 AM, Saturday’s game on KGVO 1290 AM/101.5 FM, with Tom Stage calling the action. … Both games can be watched free of charge at Big Sky TV or tracked via live stats. Links to all online services can be found on the women’s basketball schedule page at GoGriz.com.

Talking points:

1. Montana will be without three reserves for this weekend’s games: redshirt sophomore guards Haley Vining (knee) and Hannah Doran (knee) and redshirt freshman guard DJ Reinhardt (concussion). None of the injuries is expected to be long-term.

The absence of Vining (20 assists, 5 turnovers for the season) and Doran will be especially noticeable in Saturday’s game, when Montana’s ball security (and depth) against Sacramento State’s 40 minutes of full-court pressure will be one of the game’s keys.

2. Northern Arizona hasn’t made the Big Sky Conference tournament since 2009, so second-year coach Sue Darling went with a roster makeover in the offseason to help change her program’s direction. On NAU’s 13-player roster, there are eight true freshmen and a pair of transfers, one from New Mexico State and one from Central Arizona Community College.

Even so, it’s the team’s three returners who are leading the way. Frost is the team’s most dangerous scorer, junior forward Erikka Banks is grabbing 9.0 rebounds per game, and junior center Raven Anderson is shooting 49.4 percent from the field.

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Tory Hill, Jordan Sullivan and Carly Selvig. Photo by AustinSmith.

“She has a lot of new players, so I’m sure they anticipate getting better and better as the season goes along,” UM coach Robin Selvig said. “And Frost is a really good player. She’s a good scorer and a good leader.”

3. Northern Arizona is shooting an attractive 43.1 percent for the season, which normally would produce a better record than 3-6, but the Lumberjacks are hurting themselves in two areas. They turn the ball over a league-worst 21.1 times per game, and they are allowing their opponents to shoot an unattractive 42.1 percent and score 72.0 points per game.

The question is whether Montana, which has shot better than 38 percent only twice through nine outings this season, can take advantage of that defense. If it can’t, expect a game like last season at Flagstaff, when both teams scored in the 50s.

4. It’s fitting that Sacramento State, the up and comer, faces Montana, the bluest of the Big Sky’s blue bloods, on the first full weekend of league games. Whatever the result, it will be a statement game for either the Hornets, who have two Big Sky Conference tournament victories in program history, or the Lady Griz, who have gone to 20 NCAA tournaments.

5. Maybe this will help explain Sacramento State’s approach to the game under Harkleroad: When the Hornets played St. Mary’s back on Dec. 5, the Gaels shot 60.3 percent, which usually leads to a double-digit victory. Except that sweet shooting was coupled with 29 turnovers, and that allowed Sacramento State, which turned the ball over just 10 times, to take 32 more shots than St. Mary’s. The result was a 94-92 win for the Hornets, and that is still the only loss this season for St. Mary’s (12-1), which knocked off Gonzaga the other day. In other words: the Sac State system works.

6. Sacramento State ranks fourth nationally in scoring at 92.1 points per game, and more than half (387 of 762) of the Hornets’ shots this season have come from 3-point range. Perhaps that’s because Harkleroad follows this basic mathematical premise: shooting 33 percent from 3-point range (the Hornets shoot 33.6) is the equivalent of shooting 50 percent from inside the arc.

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Kellie Cole. Photo by AustinSmith.

The Hornets will also press and trap for 40 straight minutes, and that, more than their scoring, is what leads to the statistic that has led to an 8-1 record: Sac State is forcing nearly 11 more turnovers per game than it is giving away itself. That +10.8 turnover margin ranks second nationally and is the No. 1 reason the Hornets have taken 141 more shots this season than their opponents.

And therein lies the game within the game. Montana ranks sixth nationally at 12.0 turnovers per game (and has given up only 38 3-pointers, just 17 more than Sac State made in a single game against UC Irvine).

“It will be a real challenge for us,” Selvig said. “It won’t be so much about controlling tempo as it will be about taking care of the ball. You can’t have turnovers that turn into layups.

“There will be some runs in the game and some turnovers, but keeping your composure for 40 minutes is critical, because their press is very good, and it’s for all 40.”

7. Here’s what stands out about Sac State’s wins this season: Six have been by six points or fewer. One of those wins came against UC Irvine by a score of 99-94. It came a week after the Anteaters were in Missoula for the Lady Griz Classic and fell to Montana in the championship game 71-48.

8. Five Sac State players average in double figures. Two of the names Lady Griz fans are familiar with: senior guard Alle Moreno (16.3/g) and junior guard Fantasia Hilliard (12.1/g). One of the others, freshman forward Hallie Gennett (12.4/g), is from Post Falls, Idaho.

9. Despite their different approaches to the game, Montana (1.39) and Sacramento State (1.39) have the same assist-to-turnover ratio. Both rank in the top 10 nationally in that category.

Montana Notes:

* Torry Hill has hit at least one 3-pointer in every game this season and in 16 straight games dating back to last season.

* Hill has had no worse than a 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio in every game this season and has 39 assists against 20 turnovers through nine games.

* If Hill maintains her current season scoring average of 12.7, she’ll become Montana’s 30th 1,000-point scorer before the end of the regular season.

* Montana ranks third nationally in blocks at 6.7 per game. Carly Selvig ranks 20th at 2.67 and has blocked at least two shots in eight of nine games this season.

* Jordan Sullivan’s 16-point, 11-rebound performance against Temple was her second career double-double.

* If the durable Sullivan plays in all 20 of Montana’s Big Sky games and gets the opportunity for two postseason games, she’ll have stepped foot on the court more times (126) than any other player in Lady Griz history.

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Cousins Carly Selvig and Jordan Sullivan. Photo by AustinSmith.

* Montana’s opponents have taken 53 more free throw attempts than the Lady Griz this season. Montana’s last seven opponents have outscored the Lady Griz from the line.

* In Montana’s losses to Temple and Wyoming, freshman forward Alycia Sims averaged 10.0 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.

* Sims leads Montana in free throw percentage at .870 (20 for 23).

* The Lady Griz are making nearly eight 3-pointers per game. With 71 less than a third of the way through the season, Montana is on pace to shatter the program record of 201 from 2007-08.

* Montana has more assists than turnovers in eight of nine games this season and has blocked more shots than its opponent in all nine games.

* In losses to Temple and Wyoming, Montana allowed 78 points in the paint.

* Montana’s bench has outscored the opponent’s subs in seven of nine games this season.

Upcoming: Montana will play its first Big Sky Conference home games next week when the Lady Griz host preseason favorite Eastern Washington and Portland State.

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