MISSOULA — The race for a first-round bye in the upcoming Big Sky Conference women’s basketball tourney is shaping up to be a sprint to the finish.
With fifth-place Montana’s win over third-place Northern Arizona Thursday, five teams bunched together in an intriguing way. Montana State secured Big Sky bragging rights win a dominating win, but Montana, Southern Utah, Idaho, Idaho State and Northern Arizona all could finish as high as second or as low as sixth.
It boils down to three games for the Lady Griz. Their schedule is favorable, starting with a senior day match-up against struggling Sacramento State Saturday at 2 p.m. at Dahlberg Arena.
The Hornets have lost four in a row and were crushed at Montana State Thursday, 113-69. They’re still dangerous though, pushing Idaho and Eastern Washington to the limit before losing close ones last week in Sacramento.
“It’s always an interesting one with Sac because you know you’re going to get a lot of up-and-down and running and pressing and chaos,” Montana coach Shannon Schweyen said.
“They’re a little different right now in the fact their post player (Kennedy) Nicholas has been out with a sprained ankle. She’s truly one of the biggest, strongest posts in the league. Without her, (6-foot-2) Tianna Johnson’s role has really increased and she’s been playing well. But they’re a different team.”
Senior day is always tricky for the Lady Griz because there’s so much emotion just prior to the game. Seniors McKenzie Johnston, Taylor Goligoski and Emma Stockholm will be introduced along with their parents.
All three have been loyal leaders for Montana, helping steady the ship through three injury-riddled losing seasons. The good news is they’ll most likely lead the Lady Griz (10-7, 15-11) to a winning record this season, setting a foundation for the future.
Johnston, Montana’s Ms. Reliable at point guard, will be especially hard to replace. On Thursday she snared a spot on the top 10 career scoring list (1,330 points) and on the top five career assists list (489) for the Lady Griz.
She and Mandy Morales (2005-09) are the only two players in that select company. Morales is the No. 2 all-time scorer for Montana (1,959) behind Schweyen (2,172).
Those numbers will likely mean more to Johnston once her career is over. For now, it’s all about finishing strong. Montana’s win over Northern Arizona helped boost its confidence with March Madness coming soon.
One area where the Lady Griz will want to improve Saturday is taking care of the ball. They committed 15 turnovers in the first 15 minutes against Northern Arizona, spotting the Jacks an 11-point lead. The good news for Montana is it did not commit a single turnover the rest of the way in rallying for a 70-57 win.
“It’s always key with (Sac State) taking care of the ball and limiting your turnovers,” Schweyen said. “They thrive so much on quick scores and getting you to turn it over. Then defending the 3-point line is going to be important for us.”
Sac State (6-11, 8-18) has made more 3-point shots (148) than any other team in Big Sky action. The Hornets have also taken more triples than any other team in the conference (499) and their shooting percentage from behind the arc is not real impressive (.297).
After this weekend, the Lady Griz will embark on a long road trip that starts Tuesday when they take off to play Northern Colorado on Wednesday. They will not return home until after the Big Sky tourney, which means they’ll be away from home for 12 days if they manage to make the championship game on March 13.
Bill Speltz is Missoulian Sports Editor and has served as Sunday columnist the past 14 years. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at email@example.com.