BOZEMAN — It’s been a strenuous season for the Montana Lady Griz.
A confluence of injuries to top players like Kayleigh Valley and Alycia Sims has forced first-year coach Shannon Schweyen to play several freshmen, and that in part has led to the program’s first 20-loss campaign.
Montana State, naturally, is ready to pounce.
The Bobcats haven’t beaten Montana twice in the same year since the 1998-99 season. In all, they’ve only beaten the Lady Griz in 25 of 102 tries. But Saturday is MSU’s chance to complete the season sweep and keep pace atop the Big Sky Conference standings in the stretch run to the league tournament in Reno, Nevada.
Montana and Montana State tip off at 2 p.m. at Worthington Arena, and is the first half of a doubleheader preceding the men’s game at 7 p.m.
The Bobcats and Lady Griz are so clearly in contrary positions.
MSU is 19-6 overall, 12-3 in Big Sky games and honing in on a bye for the league tournament, which begins March 6. Montana is 5-21 overall, 2-13 in conference and trying to build momentum, though tangible gains have seemed few and far between.
“It’s hard to not look at their record,” Bobcats guard Delany Junkermier said, adding that a season sweep for the Lady Griz is “one of our goals, and we’re really trying to fulfill it.
“Rivalry games are always very hard. You get the best out of every single person during those games. We have to be ready for their best game that they’re going to give us.”
The Bobcats got Montana’s best effort in their first matchup this season on Feb. 4 in Missoula. An inspired Lady Griz team took MSU to the brink, and led by as many as nine points in the final minutes.
The veteran Bobcats eventually found their bearings and prevailed in overtime, 75-69.
Peyton Ferris had a career game with 27 points, 12 rebounds and five blocked shots. Junkermier hit a couple key shots down the stretch, as well. That offset big performances from Lady Griz freshmen McKenzie Johnston and Taylor Goligoski, who combined for 36 points and 10 rebounds.
"We were successful on offense. We scored off a variety of things and shot the ball fairly well," recalled first-year Montana coach Shannon Schweyen. “I thought our kids played with a lot of enthusiasm. They were pumped up and ready to go."
The Lady Griz are 0-13 in road games this season. Without Valley and Sims, Montana lost its first 10 conference games before winning two in a row against Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, though they fell back again last week with road defeats at Sacramento State and Portland State.
Johnston, a Helena Capital product, was the spark against SUU and NAU. She averaged 22.5 points and 4.5 assists in those two games. She later had 11 assists versus Sacramento State.
Johnston rightfully has MSU’s attention.
“McKenzie Johnston, particularly the last three weeks, has really gained some confidence playing at a high level,” MSU coach Tricia Binford said. “This time of year, I don’t think you can treat anybody as a freshman anymore. You just have to prepare as best you can and limit your breakdowns. That’s something we’re challenging our entire team on.”
The Bobcats are a perfect 10-0 in home game this season, and have won eight of their past nine games overall. Ferris, a Twin Bridges product, is a bona fide league MVP candidate and the ultimate bruiser inside.
Her effort in the first game against the Lady Griz still had Binford raving this week.
“Her ability to make timely plays, responding when teams make runs, that’s been very consistent,” Binford said. “When you look at great players, some of that is just paying attention to when those things are needed, and I think those are exciting things to see players just take over in those situations.”
Binford and Junkermier both admitted to MSU having some jitters against Montana the first time, but they regrouped just in time. The pressure on Saturday rests again with the Bobcats, if only because of what’s on the line.
The Lady Griz don’t have much to lose.
"We want to be feeling like we're making strides, whether we are winning games or not,” Schweyen said.
The teams will close the regular season next week with home games versus Idaho State and Weber State.