Nine Things to Kick Off Your Lady Griz Season

By JOEL CARLSON for GoGriz.com

The Montana women’s basketball team, under 37th-year head coach Robin Selvig, will open its season Wednesday morning with its first practice of the 2014-15 season.

Montana will get in three weeks of practice before the Maroon and Silver scrimmage, which will be held Wednesday, Oct. 29.

The Lady Griz will host Great Falls on Tuesday, Nov. 4, and Minot State on Friday, Nov. 7, in exhibition games and open the regular season on Monday, Nov. 17, hosting Montana-Western.

A 2014-15 primer, broken down into nine bite-size chunks and following a highly circuitous path:

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Robin Selvig is in his 37th year as head coach of the Lady Griz. Photo by ©Austin Smith for Make itMissoula.

1. Robin Selvig, who took over the program when Jimmy Carter was in the second year of his presidency and whose coaching career was named the No. 2 moment in Big Sky Conference women’s athletics history last summer, is back for his 37th season.

He enters 2014-15 with a record of 821-266 after winning No. 800 last November with a home-court victory over Portland. He ranks sixth among active Division I coaches in victories behind only North Carolina’s Sylvia Hatchell (935), Rutgers’ C. Vivian Stringer (929), Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer (927), Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma (879) and Georgia’s Andy Landers (843).

He’s the only coach on the list who hasn’t played in the NCAA national championship game, which really doesn’t tell us much of anything except that he’s in good company.

2. You know how coaches like to downplay expectations as a new season gets under way? Not Selvig. At least not this year. “I think we’re going to have a really good team,” he says, and for a coach with 29 20-win seasons to his credit, that’s saying something.

He believes this because he’s already seen it on the court not that many months ago.

Montana had just two seniors on last year’s team, and point guard Torry Hill was lost when she suffered a knee injury at North Dakota in the championship game of the Big Sky Conference tournament.

When Montana was selected for the WNIT, the program’s 26th national tournament appearance, the Lady Griz had a lineup of then-senior Jordan Sullivan and pretty much this year’s team. And the results were beyond just encouraging. Some thought the team might just win the whole tournament.

Montana pretty much outplayed a good Washington State team in the first round and won 90-78, then was in a tie game with San Diego in the final minute in the second round before the Toreros pulled out a 60-57 win.

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Redshirt Senior Kellie Cole. Photo by ©Austin Smith for Make itMissoula.

3. In those two WNIT games, Selvig used a starting backcourt of Kellie Cole, now a redshirt senior, and McCalle Feller, now a junior. It’s a good guess that those two players will make up the starting backcourt this season.

Cole averaged 14.1 points and 5.0 rebounds last season at the two guard, alongside Hill, and was voted first-team All-Big Sky Conference. In her two WNIT starts at the point, Cole averaged a cool 19 points and seven assists and made it look like she’d been playing the position all season.

If she shoots the ball like she did last season — 46.3 percent from the field, 43.9 percent from 3-point range, 78.9 percent from the line — and if Montana turns out to be as good as Selvig thinks, put Cole on the short watch list for Big Sky Conference MVPs.

With Cole moved to the point for Montana’s WNIT games, Feller got her first career starts at the two guard. She delivered with 13 points against the Cougars and eight points and five rebounds against the Toreros, both well above her season averages.

And for as high-energy and free-spirited as Feller plays, she is surprisingly efficient. She totaled nine more assists than turnovers last season, one of eight positive assist-to-turnover ratios on the team. Expect her scoring to jump like Cole’s did last year as a first-time starter.

Which means Selvig will have a solid backcourt, and nothing allows a coach to sleep better at night than knowing his backcourt is in good hands.

“Kellie at the point is what I’d anticipate right now. She’s good with the ball and just a really good player,” said Selvig. “Based on what we saw at the end of last year, that’s a pretty good option.

“But that’s the thing about every new year. Even though we lost only two kids, everything is different, everything opens up a little bit. What personality is this team going to develop? Who’s going to be in what role?”

4. About that first practice on Wednesday: Montana will have only 10 healthy players, which means this year’s team will be slow to develop the identity it will ultimately assume by March.

Redshirt senior Carly Selvig and redshirt junior Haley Vining are both on their way back from ACL injuries suffered last season and will be watching from the sideline early on.

Selvig, the 2013-14 Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year, may be back with limited minutes as soon as late November. Vining probably won’t be back until at least December.

Redshirt sophomore Shanae Gilham, who had her own ACL injury in March 2013 and missed last season entirely, also will be slow out of the gate this season after additional cartilage surgery a few weeks back, though she should be back sooner than Selvig and Vining.

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Sophomore Alycia Sims. Photo by ©Austin Smith for Make ItMissoula.

More knee misfortunes for the player who sent a nightly charge through Dahlberg Arena as a true freshman in 2012-13, and that was simply by jumping off the bench and walking over to the score table to check into the game, so electric was her stuff.

No-look passes. Picking an unsuspecting ball-handler’s pocket. Three-point range that went green once she crossed half court. Lady Griz fans crave three healthy years for Gilham.

“It’s just been one long struggle for her, but, fingers crossed, she’s due for some good luck. Hopefully she can get it back going,” said Selvig.

“She’s had three ACLs and now two cartilage surgeries, which aren’t as big a deal, but you’re always holding your breath.”

The other player who will be watching practice Wednesday will be incoming freshman Maddie Keast of Missoula.

The last time anyone saw her playing was at the Class AA state tournament last spring. Since then she’s had a mystery foot injury, which may finally have been diagnosed: an uncooperative nerve in her toe that has been righted through surgery.

All four players will be gradually working their way back into practice. By the time Montana reaches its Big Sky Conference opener at Northern Colorado on Jan. 1, all 14 could very well be healthy and at least available to practice if not play. By March? Hopefully rolling.

“Once we get healthy, we’ll be deep,” said Selvig.

5. With 10 healthy players and four on the injured reserve, that’s 14 on a roster that was 15 as the school year approached. Making the decision to not return was guard DJ Reinhardt, who would have been a redshirt sophomore.

“She made the decision she wants to be a writer,” said Selvig. It’s a line of study Reinhardt will pursue at Montana, and here’s the thing: Had she wanted to change to a new major and still play basketball, it wouldn’t have worked anyway.

“She would have been ineligible,” Selvig said. “She’s a good student, but she wouldn’t have met the NCAA requirements for credits (in her new major) toward degree completion.

“She just had other interests, and basketball wasn’t the most important thing in her life. She’s very comfortable with her decision and really happy with it.”

6. If Montana had to play a game tomorrow, the Lady Griz would field a lineup of Cole and Feller in the backcourt, sophomore Kayleigh Valley at the three, senior Maggie Rickman at the four and sophomore Alycia Sims at the five.

And, given the improvement of Valley and Sims last season as true freshmen, it would be a lineup that would probably challenge for a Big Sky Conference title.

Sims had 10 rebounds in her collegiate debut last winter, followed by 13-point scoring outings in games two and three. That type of production wasn’t going to last, but she enjoyed a very solid freshman campaign nevertheless, averaging 5.5 points and 5.1 rebounds and more than 17 minutes off the bench.

“Alycia had an outstanding freshman year. One really nice thing was that as a freshman she was a really solid defender, and that will only keep getting better,” said Selvig.

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Junior McCalle Feller with former Lady Griz teammate Torry Hill. Photo by ©Austin Smith for Make itMissoula.

“She’s intelligent and plays maturely, and she worked really hard in the off-season to get in even better shape.”

Valley was equally solid, though she kept people excitedly waiting until March for the breakout everyone knew was coming: from productive freshman sub off the bench to wow, she’s going to be really good. There was no way so much talent was going to be kept hidden for long.

She was instrumental in Montana’s run from the quarterfinals to the championship game at the Big Sky tournament. Once the WNIT rolled around, Valley put up 15 points and five rebounds on Washington State and 10 points and five rebounds on San Diego. Expect more of the same in 2014-15.

“Kailey finished last season really strong,” said Selvig. “She was the three last year, but she’ll play the three and four this year because she is versatile and has good enough size.

“I’m excited that she’s getting better all the time.”

7. In addition to the four who won’t be practicing when the season opens and those five presumed early-season starters, Montana has a bench of five.

Redshirt junior Hannah Doran has slowly been collecting game experiences and would be an early-off-the-bench backcourt sub, as would freshman Sierra Anderson. The point guard out of Mill Creek, Wash., has earned high praise from Selvig based on the team’s limited practices in September.

Redshirt sophomore post players Rachel Staudacher and Molly Klinker both played limited minutes in 11 games last season, and Mekayla Isaak, a 6-foot-2 redshirt freshman forward, will be making her Lady Griz debut this season.

Hint: Lady Griz fans, who love players who compete not just hard but really hard, are going to fall for Isaak big time. Floor burns. Yes. Not backing down to bigger opponents. Yes. The 2014-15 season’s where-did-she-come-from breakout player? Yes.

8. Last year’s seniors update: Hill, who finished her career with 202 3-pointers (No. 4 in Lady Griz history) and a delightful assist-to-turnover ratio (1.4), is now an assistant coach at Rocky Mountain College in Billings.

Sullivan packed her bags in August and decamped for Denmark to try her hand at professional basketball. She averaged 11.6 points and 7.8 rebounds last season on her way to second-team All-Big Sky honors.

Harder to replace will be this: After last season Sullivan was voted the team’s Shannon Green Most Inspirational Player and the Theresa Rhoads Award winner for best exemplifying Lady Griz basketball.

“Jordan had a lot of intangibles,” said Selvig. “They both did. Both of them played like seniors last year. Jordan got big rebounds and hit big shots, and Torry at the point didn’t turn it over. Those are little things that come with experience and make a difference. We’ll obviously miss that.”

9. Montana may not be at full strength until the calendar turns to 2015, but that won’t matter to the opponents of late 2014.

After opening with Montana-Western, the Lady Griz will play at Pacific, a fellow WNIT team from a year ago, then travel to Cancun, Mexico, to face UNC Charlotte, Princeton and Wake Forest. Charlotte and Princeton both made the WNIT last season. Wake Forest won 15 games playing in the ACC.

Montana will host Wyoming and Carroll in early December, play at Portland and Seattle on a mid-month road trip, then host Utah Valley, St. Louis and Austin Peay at the 34th Lady Griz Classic Dec. 19-20.

“We’ll find out where we are real early. But we return a number of kids with experience, so it will be good for us,” Selvig said.

“We played five really good teams at the end of last year (at the Big Sky tournament and in the WNIT), the last two without Torry. Our other kids stepped up and played really well in those games, and that was encouraging. They should know that they can go out play good people.”

Montana Sports Information