Lady Griz Face Fighting Irish Tonight in NCAA Opener

By JOEL CARLSON

The Montana women’s basketball team will face Notre Dame Friday night in the opening round of the NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship. The Lady Griz and Fighting Irish will tip off at 5:30 p.m. (MT) at UND’s Purcell Pavilion at Notre Dame, Ind.

Montana (24-8) is the No. 16 seed in the Oklahoma City Region. Notre Dame (31-2), which is ranked No. 2 nationally behind two-time defending national champion Connecticut, is the region’s No. 1 seed. It is the fourth consecutive year and the fifth time in program history the Fighting Irish have been a No. 1 seed.

Friday night’s game will be preceded by No. 8 Minnesota (23-9) and No. 9 DePaul (26-7), who tip off at 3 p.m. (MT). Friday’s winners will meet on Sunday, March 22, at a time to be determined, with the winner advancing to the round of 16.

Coverage: The Montana-Notre Dame game will be televised on ESPN2 and will have market protection in Montana, Indiana and the Chicago area. Fans in those viewing areas will see the game in its entirety.

Announcing the game will be Beth Mowins (play-by-play) and Stephanie White (analyst).

The contest has also been designated as the primary national game in that time slot, meaning most of the country will watch the Lady Griz and Fighting Irish, though it will be subject to whip-around coverage if another game becomes more compelling.

Fans can also watch the game in its entirety on the WatchESPN app or at espn3.com.

The game will be aired locally on KGVO 1290 AM/101.5 FM, with Tom Stage and Dick Slater calling the action.

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Montana’s three seniors, Maggie Rickman, Carly Selvig and Kellie Rubel accept the BSC Championship Tournament trophy on behalf of the Lady Griz Team. Photo by ©William Munoz for Make itMissoula

How they got here: Montana earned the Big Sky Conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament by hosting and winning last week’s league tournament. The Lady Griz defeated Idaho State, 69-67, Eastern Washington, 55-51, and Northern Colorado, 60-49, to advance.

Notre Dame, which enters the tournament on a 17-game winning streak, won the ACC tournament with victories over Miami, Duke and Florida State to earn the league’s automatic bid, though the Fighting Irish obviously would have been an at-large selection had they dropped a tournament game.

Florida State is a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, Duke a No. 4 and Miami a No. 11.

Minnesota was an at-large selection out of the Big 10, while DePaul earned the Big East Conference’s automatic bid.

Postseason bona fides: Montana is playing in its 21st NCAA tournament. The Lady Griz have a 6-20 tournament record and are seeking their first win since upsetting No. 5 San Diego State as a No. 12 seed in the first round of the 1995 tournament.

The Lady Griz have lost their opening-round game their last 10 trips to the NCAA tournament.

Kellie Cole Lady Griz vs Western

Kellie ColeRubel

Montana, which has been seeded 12th or lower its last nine trips to the NCAAs, is playing as the No. 16 seed for just the second time in 21 tournament appearances. No. 16 Montana lost 74-46 at No. 1 Georgia at the 2000 tournament.

Notre Dame is making its 20th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament, the sixth-longest active streak in the nation, and its 22nd overall. All have come under 28th-year coach Muffet McGraw. The Fighting Irish are 20-3 in the tournament when playing as a No. 1 seed.

UND won a national championship in 2001 and has been to six Final Fours, including the last four. The Irish ended their season with a loss in the national title game three of the last four years, falling in the final game to Texas A&M in 2011, Baylor in 2012 and Connecticut last year.

History: Montana won the only previous meeting between the two teams. The Lady Griz edged the Fighting Irish 50-48 in the consolation game of Washington’s Seattle Times Classic on Dec. 31, 1986. McGraw, who has 694 wins at Notre Dame, took over the program the following season.

So you’re telling me there’s a chance: Unlike the men’s tournament, which has never had a No. 16 seed knock off a No. 1, it’s happened in the women’s tournament, and on a home court. But just once. At the 1998 tournament, No. 16 Harvard won 71-67 at No. 1 Stanford.

No. 16 seeds have a 1-84 all-time tournament record.

Successful coaches meeting for the first time: Montana’s Robin Selvig, with 845 wins at his alma mater, and Muffet McGraw, with 694 victories at Notre Dame, enter Friday’s game with more than 1,500 combined wins at their current schools. Teams they coach are going head-to-head for the first time.

McGraw has 782 wins when counting her successful tenure at Lehigh before she took over at Notre Dame.

Thin on experience: No one on Montana’s roster has started an NCAA tournament game, though Kellie Rubel, Maggie Rickman, Carly Selvig, McCalle Feller and Hannah Doran all got minutes off the bench in 2013 when Montana lost 70-50 to Georgia at Spokane, Wash., in the first round.

Player to watch (Montana): Kellie Rubel, who averages 14.0 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game, was named the Big Sky Conference regular-season co-MVP and was the only player in the league to be a unanimous first-team All-Big Sky selection.

She was named MVP of the Big Sky tournament last week after leading Montana to the title. She averaged 14 points, 8.7 rebounds, 4 assists and 2.7 steals, while posting a pair of double-doubles. She played 118 of a possible 120 minutes in the three victories.

Maggie Rickman

Maggie Rickman. Photo by WilliamMunoz

Player to watch (Notre Dame): Five-ten junior guard Jewell Loyd averages 20.5 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists and last week was named the espnW National Player of the Year. In 11 games against top-25 teams this season, she is averaged 24.9 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.5 assists.

Loyd, who was an all-American as a sophomore, scored 41 points at DePaul in December to match the school’s scoring record, 34 against Tennessee and 31 against Connecticut.

“She’s the real deal,” said UM coach Robin Selvig. “She’s just a great player. The scary thing is that you can defend her well, and she can still score. Hopefully we can contain her to what’s an average game for her, because she’s pretty impressive.”

Three things to watch Friday night:

1. Montana ranks fourth in the nation in field goal percentage defense at .340. Using that metric solely, this is the third-best defensive team in coach Robin Selvig’s 37 seasons at Montana and his best in two decades.

But the Lady Griz haven’t been tested defensively like they will be on Friday night, not even when they faced Princeton back in November at the Cancun Challenge.

Notre Dame is shooting 49.8 percent for the season, the second-best mark in the nation, and averaging 81.2 points, fourth in the nation. Four of its top five scorers are shooting 51 percent or better. The only one who isn’t is Loyd, and she’s shooting 46.6 percent.

The highest shooting percentages Montana has allowed this season are 46.2 to Wake Forest (helped considerably by Dearica Hamby’s 13-for-17 performance) and 44.3 to Princeton, which is 30-0 and a No. 8 seed at the tournament.

Only six other times this season has an opponent shot 40 percent or better against Montana, which is allowing just 56.8 points per game.

2. This is always a key when Montana plays an NCAA tournament game, invariably against a higher-seeded team with bigger, more athletic players than the Lady Griz are used to facing: can they compete on the boards?

It’s a small victory to force Notre Dame into a shot it didn’t want to take and a miss. But the team defensive effort is lost in a heartbeat if the end result is an offensive rebound with an easy put-back. It can be demoralizing.

Montana is a relatively solid rebounding team, +4.4 boards per game for the season. For Notre Dame, which starts a pair of 6-foot-3 underclassmen, it’s one of its strengths. The Irish are outrebounding really good teams by nearly nine boards per game and grab more than 13 offensive rebounds per game.

“Rebounding is a real key for us, because they are athletic and a big, strong team,” said Selvig. “They are outrebounding people by nine or so, which is pretty impressive considering who they play.”

In its most recent NCAA tournament game, against Georgia in 2013, Montana actually out-rebounded the Lady Bulldogs 43-37, but the Lady Griz were done in by 20 turnovers and 29.3 percent shooting.

Carly Selvig

CarlySelvig

3. On the other end of the court, Montana will get its share of looks because the Lady Griz run good things. The key will be to convert on those looks, hopefully at a higher percentage than its .394 season shooting percentage, because second-shot opportunities will be hard to come by.

At the ACC tournament, Notre Dame gave up 17 second-chance points in three games (total, not average) to Miami, Duke and Florida State.

“We’ve obviously got to shoot the ball,” said Selvig. “We can play very well defensively, but we’re not going to shut them down, so when we get good shots, we’ve got to make them. We’re not going to be able to weather a poor shooting game and think we can hang with them.”

If those looks are from 3-point range, Montana will need to be better than it has been its last four games. The Lady Griz are 15 for 64 (.234) from the arc the last two weekends and went 0 for 10 against Northern Colorado in the Big Sky championship game, their only 0-fer of the season.

And hopefully junior shooting guard McCalle Feller has been saving her makes for Notre Dame. She went 1 for 18 from 3-point range at the Big Sky tournament.

More on Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish average more than 8,800 fans for their home games. … Notre Dame hasn’t lost since Jan. 8, when it fell 78-63 at Miami. Its only other loss this season came at home to Connecticut in December, 76-58. … The Irish have made 32 more free throws this season (526) than their opponents have attempted (494). … Notre Dame is 10-1 against ranked teams this season, with six wins over top-10 teams. … UND has 14 wins against teams in this year’s NCAA tournament. … Loyd was named the ACC Player of the Year. … Freshman forward Brianna Turner, one of those two 6-foot-3 starting underclassmen, was voted ACC Freshman of the Year and first-team All-ACC. … The lone common opponent for Montana and Notre Dame this year: Wake Forest. Montana lost 73-60 to the Demon Deacons at Cancun, Notre Dame beat them 92-63 at Purcell Pavilion in ACC play. … The Fighting Irish are 17-1 at home this season, including a 92-72 victory over Maryland, one of the NCAA tournament’s No. 1 seeds, and an 88-77 win over Tennessee, a No. 2 seed.

Anatomy of a comeback: Montana trailed Northern Colorado in the Big Sky championship game by 15 points in the first half, by 13 points at the break and by 14 points with 15 minutes left in the second half. UM’s 16 points at the half were a season low.

Then everything changed, and it started with three straight possessions that resulted in offensive rebounds and putbacks. When the comeback was over, Montana had scored on 20 of its final 23 possessions to not just rally but outscore UNC 44-20 in the second half and win by 11.

In the first half Montana scored 16 points on 28 possessions, or 0.57 points per possession. In the second half, 44 points on 31 possessions, or 1.42 points per possession.

Montana Notes:

* The Lady Griz have 199 blocks this season, the most in program history.

* Maggie Rickman’s second-half numbers against Northern Colorado in the Big Sky championship game: 8-for-9 shooting, 18 points, seven rebounds in 20 minutes.

* McCalle Feller may have struggled from the arc at the Big Sky tournament, but she was still an effective player. She was 6 for 11 from inside the 3-point line, 5 for 5 from the line and grabbed 15 rebounds, with a career-high eight against Northern Colorado.

* Kayleigh Valley was named to the Big Sky Conference all-tournament team after averaging 12.7 points on 54.2 percent shooting and 5.3 rebounds. Nine of her rebounds came on the offensive end, and all seemed to result in putback baskets.

* Growing returns: Montana was +2 on the boards against Idaho State, +9 against Eastern Washington and a season-high +21 against Northern Colorado. Against the Bears in the championship game, Montana grabbed 28 of the second half’s 37 available rebounds, or 75.7 percent of them.

Montana Sports Information