Lady Griz Playing For Reno Seed This Week

By JOEL CARLSON

The Montana women’s basketball team will close out its regular season this week with road games at North Dakota and Northern Colorado.

The Lady Griz will face the Fighting Hawks on Wednesday at 6 p.m. (MT) in Grand Forks at UND’s Betty Engelstad Sioux Center and the Bears on Friday at 7 p.m. in Greeley at UNC’s Bank of Colorado Arena.

Coverage: Both games this week will air locally on KGVO 101.5 FM/1290 AM, with Tom Stage and Dick Slater making the long trip to call the games. Links to video and live stats are available on gogriz.com.

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Looking ahead: Montana will return to Missoula on Saturday, then get right back on a plane on Sunday morning and travel to Reno, Nev., for next week’s 12-team, 11-game Big Sky Conference women’s basketball tournament.

Where they stand: Montana (18-9, 11-5 BSC) and North Dakota (15-12, 11-5 BSC), which hosts Montana State Friday afternoon, are tied for fourth in the Big Sky standings. Both are one game behind third-place Idaho (20-8, 12-4 BSC) and one game up on sixth-place Weber State (18-9, 10-6 BSC).

Northern Colorado, which hosts the Bobcats Wednesday night, is alone in eighth place.

What’s at stake: Montana, North Dakota and Northern Colorado all will be playing in Reno next week. The goal for the Lady Griz and Fighting Hawks is the same: finish in the top four and avoid having to open the tournament on Monday and be four wins in six days from the tournament title.

2016-03-01_2123_001The top four teams earn a bye to Wednesday’s quarterfinal round. Entering this week’s games, only Montana State (21-6, 14-2 BSC) and Eastern Washington (19-9, 13-3 BSC) have clinched a first-round bye. Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and Weber State are all alive for the other twospots.

Things we know: Montana could finish as high as the No. 3 seed or as low as the No. 6 seed. … With a road sweep this week, the Lady Griz would assure themselves of a top-four finish and a bye to Wednesday’s quarterfinals. … With a loss Wednesday, Montana, which in that case would lose the head-to-head tiebreaker to both Idaho and North Dakota, would be locked into playing on Monday. … Even with a win Wednesday, Montana would not secure a bye. That’s because North Dakota, which won at Missoula last month, still gets a chance on Friday to split its season series with Montana State, which Montana also did. UND’s secondary advantage: the Fighting Hawks went 1-1 against Eastern Washington, Montana 0-1. All in all, it’s enough to give yourself a headache if you think too much about the scenarios. Let’s agree to let Wednesday’s game play out, then reexamine the possibilities.

Trending (Montana): Up. That’s what seven straight wins, the longest winning streak for the Lady Griz since January of last season, will get you. Five of those wins came at home. The two road victories were at Southern Utah and Northern Arizona. This week will present a tougher road to travel.

Trending (North Dakota): Up. The Fighting Hawks, picked second in the preseason coaches’ poll, were on their way to a disappointing 1-5 start to league before Mia Loyd scored at the buzzer to beat Montana in Missoula on Jan. 16. Now North Dakota has won 10 of 11 and worked its way into the bye discussion.

Trending (Northern Colorado): Slightly down. The Bears have lost three of four and are 1-7 against the top five teams in the league. With home games against the Montana schools this week, that could change and, with Reno right around the corner, at just the right time.

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Game-week Storylines:

* Montana split with North Dakota and Northern Colorado when the teams visited Missoula in January. The Lady Griz held the Bears to 18 first-half points and led the final 26 minutes in their 58-46 win over UNC.

Two days later the Fighting Hawks picked up the program’s first-ever victory at Montana, winning 61-59 when Loyd converted on a baseline-out-of-bounds play at the buzzer. McCalle Feller scored 25 second-half points, 31 for the game, but it wasn’t enough as the Lady Griz never held a second-half lead.

* Last week’s home sweep of Idaho State and Weber State came in opposite ways. In Thursday’s 62-47 win over the Bengals, the Lady Griz held ISU to 24.2 percent shooting, the lowest percentage for an opponent this season. Idaho State’s two leading scorers on the season, Apiphany Woods and Anna Lee Policicchio, shot 3 for 30. (Note: Montana allowed Idaho State just 0.73 points per possession. It was the second-lowest points-per-possession allowed this season [0.70 at Portland State].)

2016-03-01_2123On Saturday, Montana had a hard time slowing down Weber State, which shot 47.6 percent, the second-highest percentage allowed this season by the Lady Griz. Thankfully Montana shot a season-best 56.6 percent and needed it all in what was a two-point game with just over three minutesremaining.

* Last week’s home sweep also finished off a perfect February at 7-0 (which came on the heels of a 3-5 January). Which got us to thinking: How many perfect months has Montana had under 38th-year coach Robin Selvig? For the purposes of this note, we’ll look at the league months of January and February.

While it was a big month for this year’s team, it was just another perfect February for the program, which has now had 15. And you can throw in 11 perfect Januarys under Selvig. But it was the first unbeaten January or February since the 2008-09 team’s unbeaten march through February.

* Bad sign: If Wednesday’s game goes into the final minute tied. Not that Kayleigh Valley with the ball in her hands isn’t about the best thing imaginable in that situation, but North Dakota has fueled its late-season surge by pulling out the close ones.

Among the winning margins in UND’s 10-in-11 streak: 1, 2, 3, 3, 3 and another in overtime. None by more than 13. North Dakota coach Travis Brewster is a friend, but I still feel objective in claiming that repeated tight-game success comes from preparation and late-game coaching decisions.

* Brewster is 4-4 in his head-to-head matchups against Selvig. He is the only active coach in the Big Sky with a record of .500 or better against Montana.

* Montana reached 18 wins with Saturday’s victory over Weber State. That moves the Lady Griz within two of reaching 20 once again. That would be the 31st in 38 years under Selvig.

* Speaking of Selvig, he moved ahead of former Georgia coach Andy Landers in all-time victories and, with 863 wins, now ranks seventh in NCAA Division I women’s basketball history behind former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt (1,098), Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer (977), North Carolina’s Sylvia Hatchell (975), Rutgers’ C. Vivian Stringer (969), Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma (946) and former Texas coach Jody Conradt (900).

* Montana got it done at the free throw line last week. The Lady Griz went 16 for 17 (.941) against Idaho State and 21 for 25 against Weber State. Those two performances bumped Montana’s season percentage from .718 to .734 and moved it up from No. 93 to No. 59 in the national statistics.

* Hannah Doran will be playing in her 100th career game Wednesday, second-highest total on the team behind McCalle Feller, who will be playing in 107th game at UND. And things are coming her way at the end of a five-year career. Four of Doran’s nine career double-figure scoring games have come in the last five games.

* The brilliance of Kayleigh Valley: She reached 1,000 career points in early February and already has moved up to No. 25 on the Montana career list, with more than a season to go. … Her 576 points this season are the sixth-most scored by a Lady Griz player. If she reaches her normal average of 21.3 this week, she’ll finish off the road trip with the No. 2-ranked total. … She would still need some tournament games to reach Shannon Cate’s program record of 668 from 1990-91. … Valley’s season scoring average of 21.3 ranks behind only Cate’s 23.3 in 1991-92 and 22.3 in 1990-91 in program history. (Cate missed games to injury in 1991-92, which is why her record average is not matched by a record point total.) … Valley’s 147 made free throws, which have come on 84.0 percent shooting from the line, rank second in single-season history behind only Mandy Morales’s 179 makes in 2006-07.

* McCalle Feller is up to 63 made 3-pointers this season. That has her nine behind Sonya Rogers’ program record of 72 from 2007-08.

* Alycia Sims‘ rebounding average of 9.6 is the best for the team since Greta Koss averaged 10.0 boards in 1996-97. It’s the fourth-highest average in program history.

* Gogriz.com has changed its vote (it doesn’t have) for Big Sky Coach of the Year from Montana State’s Tricia Binford to Eastern Washington’s Wendy Schuller. Binford is certainly worthy, but the job Schuller is doing can no longer be ignored. She lost nine players last spring, and it felt like the program was imploding. The Eagles were picked ninth in the preseason coaches’ poll and enter the final week of the season one game back of Montana State (with a head-to-head win over the Bobcats in their only meeting).

* As for Big Sky MVP, Kayleigh Valley is the best player in the league, but MVP might still be a long shot. Hard to see coaches voting for her if Montana is playing in a first-round game next Monday. She becomes a more serious candidate if Montana finishes in the top four. Coaches vote Saturday. All-conference teams get announced Sunday.

* Playing from ahead: Montana has led for 27 or more minutes in each of its last nine games. The Lady Griz haven’t faced a deficit of more than six points on their seven-game winning streak.

Montana three-dot notes: Sims’ 17 rebounds against Weber State were a career high, were the most for a Montana player this season and were three off Greta Koss’s program record. … Montana’s 1.24 points per possession against Weber State was the best for the team in league against a team not named Southern Utah. … Haley Vining, at one point among the national leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio, fell down that list when she had nine assists and nine turnovers in the four games before Saturday. On Senior Day she was back to her old self: five assists, one turnover. … McCalle Feller is 3 for 14 from 3-point range in the three games since her return from an ankle injury. Maybe the sight of North Dakota’s uniforms (she was 6 for 14 from the arc against the Fighting Hawks in the first meeting) will help her recall brilliant shooting performances of games past. … North Dakota has the size to give Sims trouble. She was 2 for 11 with four points and six rebounds in the first meeting. Since that game she has posted six of her seven double-doubles for the season. … North Dakota also held Kayleigh Valley to 16 points, her lowest scoring output in league games. … Haley Vining has 103 assists this season. Backup point guard Sierra Anderson has 60. Who ranks third? Mekayla Isaak with 56, which is impressive considering the position she plays and the minutes (22.0/g) she gets. She is a 31.7 percent shooter, so passing is her most valuable play for the team’s success. … Beware UND and UNC: Kayleigh Valley is averaging 22.7 points on 55.3 percent shooting this season on the road.

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

Viewing guide: Montana State defeated Northern Colorado in Bozeman 66-58. … Eastern Washington and Idaho are playing Idaho State and Weber State for the first time this season on the last week of the season. … If the Wildcats lose to the Vandals in Ogden, Idaho clinches a top-four seed and Weber State is out of the running for a bye. … Southern Utah won its first game against an NCAA-recognized opponent since Dec. 12 on Saturday when the Thunderbirds won 73-68 at home over Northern Arizona.

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

Viewing guide: Montana State and North Dakota play at 1 p.m. (MT). The rest of the games are at night. … Idaho coach Jon Newlee coached at Idaho State for six seasons (2002-08) before moving northwest to Moscow. He makes his second trip to Reed Gym with the Vandals after getting thumped 71-50 in his first return last season.