Lady Griz hoping for tournament repeat

Jordan Sullivan

Jordan Sullivan

March 7, 2012

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The Montana women's basketball team will attempt to advance to its 20th NCAA tournament this week when the Lady Griz play in the three-day, six-team Big Sky Conference tournament at Pocatello, Idaho. Montana takes the No. 5 seed into the tournament and faces No. 4 Montana State Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at Idaho State's Reed Gym.

A wide-open affair: No. 6 beat No. 1 two weeks ago, No. 5 swept the season series against No. 4, No. 4 swept its two meetings against No. 2, No. 3 has lost four straight games. In other words, the tournament is wide open.

And that's only based on results from the last two-plus months. Four of the last six tournaments have been won by someone other than the host team. In three of those six postseasons, the top seed did not win a single game, losing in the semifinals.

The last two tournaments have been won by teams with seeds that added up to nine: No. 5 Portland State in 2010 and No. 4 Montana in 2011. Both came out of the quarterfinals.

A tough, tough road: If beating a team three times in a single season is hard to pull off, Montana will have its work cut out for it Thursday. The Lady Griz defeated the Bobcats 61-54 at Bozeman and 77-59 just two weeks ago at Missoula.

The first meeting was a one-possession game with 30 seconds to play. The second game was tied with eight minutes remaining.

If Montana advances beyond the quarterfinals, it will face either No. 1 Idaho State or No. 2 Northern Colorado in the semifinals Friday. The Lady Griz went 0-4 against the Bengals and Bears this season.

The schedule:

Thursday, March 8
5 p.m. ... No. 3 Eastern Washington (16-13, 10-6 BSC) vs. No. 6 Sacramento State (12-17, 7-9 BSC)
7:30 p.m. ... No. 4 Montana State (18-10, 10-6 BSC) vs. No. 5 Montana (16-13, 9-7 BSC)

Friday, March 9
5 p.m. ... No. 2 Northern Colorado (19-10, 11-5 BSC) vs. highest remaining seed
7:30 p.m. ... No. 1 Idaho State (22-7, 14-2 BSC) vs. lowest remaining seed

Saturday, March 10
5 p.m. ... Championship game

If you can't make it to Pocatello: All five tournament games will be broadcast free of charge on Big Sky TV, and live stats will be offered at Montana's game(s) will be broadcast as usual on 107.5 FM in the Missoula area with Tom Stage and Dick Slater. will host a live chat for Montana's game Thursday and any Lady Griz games beyond that.

Saturday's championship game will be broadcast on Altitide2, a channel that is not carried on cable in Montana and Idaho. The game will be replayed on the more widely available Altitude at 1 p.m. on Sunday. Altitude2 is available to DirecTV subscribers on channel 682.

Been there, done that: Montana women's basketball coach Robin Selvig is in his 34th season, and this week he is taking his 34th team to a postseason tournament.

The previous 29 seasons those postseason tournaments have been the women's Mountain West Conference, precursor to the Big Sky Conference, and then the Big Sky. The Lady Griz won four championships in the six seasons of the Mountain West and has won 15 of the 23 Big Sky tournaments.

Overall Montana is 47-10 in Mountain West (10-2) and Big Sky (37-8) tournaments.

Been there, done that (only once): Montana came out of the quarterfinal round four times prior to last season's tournament and never won a championship when taking the long route. Last season as the No. 4 seed at Portland, Ore., Montana defeated No. 5 Idaho State in the quarterfinals, No. 2 Northern Colorado in the semifinals and No. 1 Portland State in the championship game.

It was the first time since 1992, when Montana upset Boise State, that a road team beat a home team in the championship game.

A familiar postseason foe: Thursday's game will be the 16th time Montana and Montana State have met in the Mountain West or Big Sky Conference tournaments but the first in a quarterfinal game. The Lady Griz have not faced any other school more than nine times.

Montana is 12-3 in tournament games against Montana State (71-20 overall since 1974-75), though the Bobcats have won two of the last three postseason meetings. MSU won back-to-back semifinal matchups in 2001-02 and 2002-03, both at Ogden, Utah. The Lady Griz won the most recent tournament meeting, 101-65 in the 2008 championship game at Missoula.

The teams have met four times at neutral-sites. Montana won semifinal matchups at Boise, Idaho, in 1991-92 and at Pocatello, Idaho, in 2000-01. Montana State won the two meetings a decade ago at Ogden.

Baker approaching 1,000: Katie Baker, who earlier this week was named a unanimous first-team All-Big Sky Conference selection, is 19 points from becoming the 28th player in Lady Griz history to reach 1,000 for her career. Baker had 173 points in her injury-shortened freshman season and 376 (11.8/g) as a sophomore and has 432 (14.9/g) this season.

Kenzie De Boer, who was named honorable mention All-Big Sky this week, will reach 1,000 next season. She currently has 829 points.

Ten Big Sky Conference tournament talking points:

1. Neither Montana nor Montana State enters Thursday's game with any sort of momentum, unless you count Montana State's 47-point second half in Saturday's 84-55 victory at Weber State.

Montana is on its first two-game losing streak since early December, and the Bobcats have not won consecutive games since late January.

2. The Big Sky's hottest teams? Northern Colorado has won five straight, with three of those coming on the road, and Sacramento State, which won its last four regular-season games to make the tournament.

During its four-game winning streak, the Hornets knocked off top-seed Idaho State and swept a pair of games against Portland State, the key tiebreaker when Sac State and Portland State both finished with 7-9 league marks.

3. At the most important time of the season, is Montana going in the wrong direction? The Lady Griz lost both games on their Portland State-Northern Arizona road trip last week, losing at PSU 60-52 and at NAU 74-70. Neither of those teams made the tournament.

Montana shot less than 35 percent in both games and allowed the Lumberjacks to shoot 52.0 percent, the high for a UM opponent this season by a large margin (.449, Northern Colorado, 1/19). NAU's victory over the Lady Griz was its only win this season against a team that finished in the top five.

The losses dropped Montana all the way down to fifth place, the lowest finish for the program since 1998-99 and matching the lowest ever under 34th-year coach Robin Selvig.

4. Despite the two losses last week, there were a number of positives in those games. Montana had six more assists than turnovers and averaged a whopping 19 offensive rebounds per game.

The Lady Griz also opened their game at Northern Arizona shooting 1 for 21 and still managed to fight their way back and take a short-lived second-half lead.

5. If last season is any indication, losing two straight to conclude the regular season is not a good gauge of how this team will play in the tournament.

A year ago this week it also felt like Montana was fading after losing three out of four to finish the regular season, but the Lady Griz won three games in three days -- with wins over the No. 2 seed in the semifinals and top-seed Portland State in the championship game to advance to the program's 19th NCAA tournament.

6. Montana can win the tournament with its defense, but the Lady Griz HAVE to shoot well, and that's been the theme all season. If the magic number is 37 percent, a percentage that does not even scratch the bottom of the range normally associated with hot shooting , that's a number Montana has shot only 10 times this season and never three times in a row.

The Lady Griz have shot 35 percent or worse 14 times this season and are 3-11 in those games.

7. The key players to watch to get that number over 37 percent will be a pair of sophomores, because Torry Hill and Jordan Sullivan have been remarkably streaky in their shooting.

Hill had her best stretch of the year right in the middle of the conference season when she shot 50 percent from the field and 51.4 percent from 3-point range over six games.

She followed that with a two-game 4-for-27 performance, went 5 for 8 in Montana's second win over Montana State, then went 6 for 28 in last week's two losses.

Sullivan has put up similar roller-coaster numbers the last nine games. She shot 4 for 24 over a four-game stretch, then went 14 for 22 for three games, then 3 for 19 last week.

8. Last season Stephanie Stender came out of nowhere to lead the Lady Griz to the tournament title and earn surprising MVP honors. If anyone was to duplicate that performance this week it would be Alyssa Smith.

Smith has started all 29 games and averages over 26 minutes. She is grabbing 6.1 rebounds per game and ranks second on the team with 47 assists, but offensively she is not the player other teams are building their scouting reports around.

She averages just 5.1 points per game and somehow has not gotten to the free throw line the last seven games and has just 24 free throw attempts for the season despite being one of the team's hardest workers on the floor.

And that makes her the ideal where-did-that-come-from? candidate. She has shown flashes of breakout offensive play. She scored a career-high 16 points against Eastern Washington, 13 against Weber State and 11 against Montana State. Nine of those 11 against the Bobcats came in the final four minutes of Montana's 61-54 win.

Despite her size and strength, Smith's game is based at the 3-point line. In the three aforementioned games, Smith scored 30 of her 40 points from the 3-point shot and just four from the free throw line.

9. The key to Montana's two victories over Montana State during the regular season was the Lady Griz' defensive work on Katie Bussey, the Bobcats' first-team All-Big Sky Conference shooting guard who enters the tournament averaging 17.4 points per game, second in the league only to MVP Brianne Ryan of Eastern Washington (19.3/g).

Bussey scored nine points on 3-of-17 shooting in the first meeting. She had a team-high 16 points in the rematch, but those points came on 5-of-18 shooting. Bussey's shooting percentage in the two games was .229.

10. In her last game at Reed Gym in MSU's 79-67 overtime upset of Idaho State, Bussey scored a Big Sky-record 41 points.



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