Loser Out? Lady Griz on Important Road Trip

By JOEL CARLSON for GoGriz.com

The Montana women’s basketball team will play a single game this week, facing Southern Utah Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Cedar City, Utah.

The Lady Griz will wrap up their regular-season schedule next week with a game at Montana State on Monday, then home games against Sacramento State and Northern Arizona next Thursday and Saturday.

Coverage: Listen to Wednesday’s game locally on KGVO 1290 AM/101.5 FM, with Tom Stage calling the action, or listen to it through the All-Access page at GoGriz.com. The game can also be watched on Big Sky TV.

Game Notes

Lady Griz Basketball Game NotesWhat’s at stake: Montana and Southern Utah are tied for second in the Big Sky Conference. They both sport 11-5 league records and 17-8 overall marks. Both trail Big Sky leader North Dakota (18-8, 13-4 BSC) by a game and a half.

The first meeting: When Montana and Southern Utah met in Missoula on Feb. 1, the Thunderbirds led 35-33 at the half, but the Lady Griz shot 46.4 percent in the second half and scored 48 second-half points to pull away for an 81-73 win.

Kellie Cole scored 24 points for Montana. Hailey Mandelko scored 27 for SUU, going 6 for 10 from 3-point range. That’s the most points scored against the Lady Griz this season and the most since Amy Patton scored 32 in December 2012.

What a Montana win would mean: A victory would pull the Lady Griz within one game of North Dakota and give them an important season sweep of the Thunderbirds, something that might be an important factor if postseason seeding requires the use of tiebreakers.

What a Southern Utah win would mean: A victory would pull the Thunderbirds within a game of North Dakota, a team SUU hosts a week from Thursday. A loss would drop Montana a full two games behind UND and even in the loss column with surging Eastern Washington (14-11, 10-6 BSC).

Adding to the challenge: Southern Utah is 8-1 at home this season, with its only loss at Centrum Arena to Idaho State by a score of 69-65. … Montana is 5-7 away from home this season and just 3-5 in Big Sky road games. On a positive note: None of those five losses has been by more than 10 points, and in four of the losses the Lady Griz have held a second-half lead.

With whom to concern yourself: Mandelko, who scored 43 points in two games on the road last week. But she’s not a one-woman show. Lori Parkinson (11.6/g) and Carli Moreland (11.5/g) both average in double figures on 48-percent-or-better shooting and are the team’s leading rebounders. … Moreland had 25 points on 11-of-17 shooting in Saturday’s win at Portland State.

With what to concern yourself: Southern Utah is the Big Sky’s second-highest scoring team behind Sacramento State at 75.4 per game. The Thunderbirds put up 73 points on Montana’s defense at Dahlberg Arena, the most allowed at home by the Lady Griz this season in a non-overtime game. … SUU is also the Big Sky’s second-ranked rebounding team (+4.1/g) behind North Dakota.

Picture24Most recently: Montana split on the road last week, falling at Weber State 56-54 and winning at Idaho State 76-67. … Southern Utah also split on the road. The Thunderbirds lost a tight 59-54 decision at Eastern Washington last Thursday, then came back from a 36-33 halftime deficit to win 86-79 at Portland State on Saturday.

Series history: Montana is 9-0 all-time against Southern Utah. That includes a perfect 4-0 mark in games at Cedar City. … In the teams’ only other meeting at SUU as Big Sky opponents, last winter, Montana went 12 for 25 from 3-point range and Kenzie De Boer went wild in helping Montana to a 78-63 win. De Boer went 9 for 12 from the field, 5 for 7 from 3-point range, and finished with 27 points.

A shared trait: With a few breaks, either Montana or Southern Utah could be in first place with or ahead of North Dakota. Both can point to two losses that were most galling, including both of their games at UND.

Southern Utah lost at North Dakota on Jan. 2 by a score of 71-68 despite holding a 10-point lead with 11 minutes to go. Eleven days later, the Thunderbirds held a 20-point, second-half lead at Northern Arizona before losing 82-77. The losses were part of SUU’s 2-2 start to its league schedule.

Montana’s most regrettable loss was last Thursday, 56-54 at Weber State. With the game there for the taking, the Lady Griz shot 33.9 percent and committed 19 turnovers. Teeth-grinding loss No. 2 was probably at North Dakota, when a nine-point, second-half lead turned into a five-point loss.

The Big Sky Conference at a glance:

The big four: North Dakota (13-4 BSC), Montana (11-5), Southern Utah (11-5) and Eastern Washington (10-6), which jumped up to this group with its 61-60 victory at Portland State Monday night. It was the Eagles’ sixth victory in their last seven games. The postseason tournament host is one of these teams.

The case for North Dakota: UND could have been shaken by its 0-2 road trip to Montana State and Montana two weeks ago, but North Dakota opted to re-exert itself instead and posted 30-point wins last week at home over both Northern Arizona and Sacramento State. … With a successful road trip to Portland State and Eastern Washington this week, UND could reach 15 wins, a number only the winner of Wednesday night’s Montana-Southern Utah game has the potential of reaching. … What UND has left: at Portland State, at Eastern Washington, at Southern Utah.

The case for Montana: If the Lady Griz can win Wednesday, they play at Montana State on Monday, where they have not lost since 2007-08, then close the season with two home games. Montana is perfect at home this season against Big Sky opponents and has won 15 straight at Dahlberg Arena against league teams. … What UM has left: at SUU, at MSU, SAC, NAU.

The case for Southern Utah: Nobody has what the Thunderbirds have: Four straight home games to wrap up the regular season, including games against both Montana and North Dakota. If SUU, which is 8-2 in its last 10, wins out, it can finish no worse than in a tie for first in the final regular-season standings. … What SUU has left: UM, MSU, UND, UNC.

The case for Eastern Washington: None yet to be made. If the Eagles win at home this week over both Northern Colorado and North Dakota, check back next week for a reassessment, because things will have gotten a lot more interesting.

Four for three: Sacramento State, Montana State and Idaho State are all tied at 8-8, Northern Colorado is lurking a half game back at 8-9. One of those four teams isn’t making the seven-team Big Sky tournament. Up against it the hardest? Northern Colorado, which closes the season with three straight road games at Eastern Washington, Portland State and Southern Utah.

Still lurking: Northern Arizona at 6-10. The Lumberjacks have won three of four and likely have to sweep Idaho State and Weber State in Flagstaff this week to hold on to any hope for the postseason.

Montana storylines:

1. Is this the new normal for Jordan Sullivan, or is she setting everyone up for a huge breakout? From early December until early February, Sullivan was killing it offensively. Over the course of 14 games she averaged 15.1 points on 52.4 percent shooting. The last six games she is averaging 6.2 points on 26.0 percent shooting.

2. Torry Hill is 43 points away from becoming the 30th player in Lady Griz history to reach 1,000 career points. Considering the Big Sky Conference single-game scoring record is 41 points and Hill’s career high is 23, don’t expect her to reach it Wednesday. Look for her to reach 1,000 at home next week. … Hill already ranks in the career top 10 in 3-point field goals (fourth, 190), assists (ninth, 410) and steals (10th, 179).

3. More of this, please: Maggie Rickman the last five games: 10.4 points on 53.7 percent shooting. Before those five games, Rickman had just a single game this season of 10 or more points.

4. Four weeks ago Montana was ranked just outside the top 10 in the nation in 3-point field goals per game. That part of the team’s game has cooled off considerably. The Lady Griz are shooting 22.2 percent from the arc the last six games, with an average of just four makes per game. Montana had made at least six threes in every game but one this season leading up to the current six-game cold spell.

5. Montana has outrebounded nine of its last 10 opponents and is 14-3 this season when doing so.