Lady Griz Open Second Half on the Road

By JOEL CARLSON

The Montana women’s basketball team will open the second half of the Big Sky Conference schedule with road games this week at Eastern Washington and Idaho. The Lady Griz will face the Eagles on Thursday at 7 p.m. (MT) at Cheney and the Vandals on Saturday at 3 p.m. (MT) at Moscow.

Coverage: Thursday’s game will be aired in the Missoula area on KMPT 930 AM, Saturday’s game on KGVO 1290 AM/101.5 FM. Tom Stage and Dick Slater will call the action. … Streaming video will be available through WatchBigSky.com, live stats through GoEags.com and GoVandals.com.

Montana at a glance: The Lady Griz enter Thursday’s game at Eastern Washington on a seven-game winning streak, their longest winning streak since the 2008-09 team won 11 in a row. … Montana has won 13 of 14 games since falling to Wyoming in early December. … The Lady Griz are alone atop the Big Sky Conference standings with an 8-1 league record and 15-5 overall mark. … Montana is up two games in the loss column on both Sacramento State (9-12, 7-3 BSC) and North Dakota (14-7, 6-3 BSC). … With a 94-86 victory over the Hornets on Saturday at Missoula in the teams’ only regular-season meeting, Montana now holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over Sac State. … Montana hosts North Dakota next Thursday. UND won the teams’ first matchup at Grand Forks 59-52. … The Lady Griz play five of their nine games on the back half of their Big Sky schedule on the road, and any one of them would be a quality win: at Eastern Washington, at Idaho, at Idaho State, at Weber State, at Montana State.

Eastern Washington at a glance: After opening 4-0 in league and sparking talk of Cheney hosting both the men’s and women’s Big Sky tournaments the second weekend of March, the Eagles (11-8, 4-4 BSC) lost four straight to drop into a tie for fifth place. … The Eagles still have 10 league games remaining, six of those at home. … EWU has road games at Sacramento State and Montana remaining on its schedule.

Idaho at a glance: The Vandals are 9-10 overall and sitting 10th in the Big Sky standings at 3-5. … After losing four of five games, Idaho got a win it desperately needed on Saturday, winning 71-58 at home over Eastern Washington. … Like the Eagles, the Vandals still have 10 league games remaining, six at home.

Five things to know about Montana

1. If the Big Sky Conference was handing out midseason awards, Kellie Rubel would be the easy pick for league MVP. She has been the steadiest player on the best team through five weeks. To understand her value, look no further than last Saturday when she played all 40 minutes against Sacramento State and had 15 points, seven assists and just three turnovers. And she was at her best late in the game. After the Hornets took an 86-84 lead with 2:05 remaining, she scored six of Montana’s next eight points as the Lady Griz closed the game on a 10-0 run.

Kellie Cole Rubel

Kellie Cole Rubel. Photo by ©WilliamMunoz

2. Montana rose to the top of the Big Sky standings because of its defense, then stayed there because the Lady Griz showed they can score it as well. In the six games between Weber State on Jan. 8 and Portland State last Thursday, Montana held five of those teams to shooting percentages to below 30 percent and below 50 points. Facing a different challenge Saturday against the Hornets, the Lady Griz offense was up to the challenge. Montana erased a 13-point, first-half deficit and won with seven players scoring at least eight points. It was the most points the Lady Griz have scored since putting 94 on Portland State last season.

3. For the first time this season, Montana is the Big Sky Conference team of choice on ESPN’s Bracketology. The site projects Montana to receive a No. 15 seed in the NCAA tournament and face No. 2 Oregon State at Corvallis. Tough draw against a team that has a single loss this year: by 11 at Tennessee in December.

4. Despite giving up 86 points Saturday to Sacramento State, Montana held the Hornets to 36.4 percent shooting in a high-possession game. Combined with the team’s defensive destruction of Portland State two days earlier — the Vikings scored 31 points on 22.4 percent shooting (for the game) — Montana’s season field goal percentage defense dropped from .322 last week to .320 this week. That has the Lady Griz sitting second nationally, the same position they hold in blocked shots (7.3/g). Montana trails only Connecticut (.296 field goal percentage defense, 8.3 blocks per game) in those categories.

5. Junior guard McCalle Feller earned her first career Big Sky Conference Player of the Week award Monday and the team’s fourth of the season. Feller averaged 20.5 points and 5.0 rebounds in last week’s victories over Portland State and Sacramento State. She scored a career-high 25 points against the Vikings and went 9 for 20 from three-point range in two wins that made it 22 straight at home for Montana against Big Sky opponents. Kellie Rubel is a two-time Big Sky Player of the Week this season, Kayleigh Valley a one-time selection.

Lady Griz

Five things to know about Eastern Washington

1. Eastern Washington is the only team in the Big Sky Conference that has five players averaging in double figures. Junior guard Hayley Hodgins averages 16.3, senior guard Lexie Nelson 16.2. Freshman guard Delaney Hodgins, sophomore guard Jade Redmon and senior forward Melissa Williams all average 10. All five play more than 29 minutes per game.

2. Nelson, first-team All-Big Sky the last two seasons, and Hodgins are both capable of putting up big offensive numbers. Nelson has eight times this season scored 20 or more points, with a season-high 29 coming against Wichita State*. Hodgins, the Big Sky’s Outstanding Freshman in 2012-13, has six times reached 20 points, with a season-high 30 against Wichita State*.

* Eastern’s 86-58 victory over Wichita State is one of the Big Sky’s best victories this season. The Shockers are 17-4.

3. While EWU’s starting five is a strong offensive unit, limit the group, or even part of it, and the Eagles have no backup plan. The Eagles’ bench averages just 7.6 points per game. If you’re drawing up a game plan to be successful come March, when you have to win three games in three days to win the Big Sky tournament, that’s not what you’d come up with.

4. Keep in mind if Thursday’s game is tight going into the final two minutes: Eastern Washington, at 78.2 percent, is the third-best free throw shooting team in the nation.

5. Where the Eagles are vulnerable: at least recently (read: on their four-game losing streak) they have been struggling to stop other teams. Sacramento State, Northern Colorado, North Dakota and Idaho shot 43.1 percent against Eastern, usually a somewhat solid defensive team. The Eagles were also outrebounded by 16 in each of their last two games and are one of four Big Sky teams with a negative rebounding margin for the season (-3.2).

Montana-Eastern Washington history: The Lady Griz lead the series with the Eagles 69-16 and hold a 26-11 advantage in games played at Cheney. EWU has won three of the last five meetings. The teams split their regular-season games last season, Montana winning 81-64 at Missoula, Eastern Washington 71-61 at Cheney. Also, Lexie Nelson played at Montana for one season before it (the winning? the fan following? the successful coaching staff?) became too much and she transferred.

Five things to know about Idaho

1. Idaho is back in the Big Sky Conference after leaving the league for greener pastures following the 1995-96 season. With four of five starters back from teams that made the NCAA tournament out of the WAC in both 2013 and ’14, a little more was expected. The Vandals were picked third in the preseason coaches’ poll, with two first-place votes, but if the eight-team Big Sky tournament was held this week, Idaho would not be in it.

2. Idaho has the Big Sky’s top scorer in senior guard Stacey Barr. Last season’s WAC Player of the Year is averaging 19.8 points per game. She scored 30 points on Eastern Washington on Saturday (though took 26 shots to do it) and has 12 times this season scored 20 or more points. In her career she’s been mostly stymied by Montana’s defense. Last season, at the Lady Griz Classic, she scored eight points on 2-of-14 shooting. As a sophomore she scored 11 and as a freshman was held to four points on 2-of-12 shooting.

3. The Vandals are the Big Sky’s second-best defensive team, if opponent field goal percentage is used as the defining metric. Idaho’s opponents are shooting just 35.3 percent this season. So why are the Vandals allowing 63.7 points? They limit shooting percentage, but they don’t limit shots. Only Portland State, at 13.5, forces fewer turnovers than Idaho’s 14.1.

4. Keep an eye on the rebounding numbers Saturday. Idaho has out-boarded five of its last nine opponents by 10 or more and was +10 despite losing at Northern Colorado two games ago and +16 Saturday against the Eagles. Montana has only been out-rebounded three times in its last 14 games, with a rebounding margin of +8.7 in those games. At +4.5 for the season, the Lady Griz rank second in the Big Sky. At +4.2, the Vandals rank third.

5. Montana coach Robin Selvig and Idaho coach Jon Newlee have met every season since 2002-03, when Newlee took over the Idaho State program. He moved up the road to Idaho after the 2007-08 season, and the Lady Griz and Vandals played nonconference games the next six seasons. In their first 21 meetings, Montana defeated Newlee’s Idaho State or Idaho teams 18 times. Newlee’s team got the better of Selvig’s twice when he was coaching the Bengals, once since coaching the Vandals.

Montana-Idaho history: The Lady Griz are 39-8 against the Vandals and 15-6 against Idaho in games played at Moscow. Montana has won the teams’ last four meetings.

Robin SelvigLady Griz three-dot notes: Montana’s 8-1 league start is its best since 2008-09. … In recent games against Idaho State, Northern Arizona, Southern Utah and Portland State, the Lady Griz trailed for a total of 29 seconds. … McCalle Feller’s 25 points Thursday against the Vikings were the most for a Montana player this season. … The Lady Griz are 11-0 this year when out-rebounding their opponent. … In the Montana-Portland State game, there was not a single missed free throw. But that’s misleading. The Lady Griz went 4 for 4, the Vikings 2 for 2. … Carly Selvig moved up to No. 2 on the Montana career blocks list last week. With 240, she will come up just short of reaching Hollie Tyler’s record of 297. … Selvig has blocked a shot in 15 straight games and leads the Big Sky at 3.3 per outing. … Since being held scoreless by Wyoming, Feller has scored eight or more points in the 14 games since. … After a slow start in conference games, Kayleigh Valley averaged 12.5 points on 56.3 percent shooting and 7.0 rebounds in last week’s two games. … Montana shot 50 percent in two games last week to up its season field goal percentage to 38.7. … Coach Robin Selvig has been claiming it all season, and now he has the numbers to finally back it up: the Lady Griz are a pretty good three-point shooting team. After going 10 for 26 (.385) against both Portland State and Sacramento State, Montana is up to .329 for the season, behind on Eastern Washington’s .343 in the Big Sky. … After seven straight games failing to shoot 70 percent at the free throw line, Montana went 20 for 25 (.800) last week. … The Lady Griz dished out a season-high 24 assists Saturday against theHornets.

Thursday in the Big Sky: UM at EWU, MSU at UI, SUU at UND, NAU at UNC

Thursday’s game to monitor: Montana State at Idaho. If the eight-team Big Sky tournament started today, both teams would be out. The Bobcats are looking to add to their two-game winning streak.

Saturday in the Big Sky: UM at UI, MSU at EWU, NAU at UND, SUU at UNC, ISU at WSU, SAC at PSU

Saturday’s game to monitor: Idaho State at Weber State. Don’t look now, but the Wildcats, winners of four of their last six, are starting to get a little frisky, and the Bengals, at 6-4 in league, are sitting in fourth place.

Bonus Big Sky note: Montana’s win over Sacramento State was especially huge considering this: Of the Hornets’ final eight games, two are against Portland State and five of their last seven are at home, where they’re unlikely to lose. The only stumbling block: road games at Northern Colorado and North Dakota. Had Sac State held the lead it had with two minutes remaining Saturday at Dahlberg Arena, teams could have started making March travel plans to Sacramento.

Montana Sports Information