MISSOULA — This late-season bonus basketball with all the comforts of home sure does suit the Montana Lady Griz.
“We are definitely loving it,” UM junior forward Maggie Rickman said of reaching the second round of the WNIT, where her team will play host to San Diego on Monday at 7 p.m.
“It’s just fun. Nothing is really expected of us. We’re just coming up as the underdog. It’s like being in a tournament when you’re younger, just playing for ourselves. The fans help an unexplainable amount.”
The injury-depleted Lady Griz drew over 2,000 for Wednesday’s 90-78 win over visiting Washington State. The turnout also helped them win over WNIT officials in their bid to host Monday’s game.
Montana is hoping to tap into more of the same electricity in its battle with the Toreros (23-8).
“It’s hard to put a price on what it is for the ladies to play here,” Montana coach Robin Selvig said. “We just have a great atmosphere.
“I’m sure the opposing teams probably appreciate it, too. I mean they’re good teams and that’s what it’s about. It makes for a happening. And win, lose or draw, I think you’re going to get everything out of whoever is out there.”
While the Lady Griz (23-10) are playing in the WNIT for the first time in seven years, San Diego has made the field three straight seasons. The Toreros reached the semifinal round two years ago and they’ve got the talent to make it back.
San Diego started its 2013-14 campaign with an unprecedented 15 wins in a row. That landed the team in the Associated Press Top 25 (No. 24) for the first time in program history in early January. Since then USD has gone 8-8, but it is coming off an 82-59 blowout win over Cal Poly in its WNIT home opener.
“They’re a very impressive team,” Selvig said. “They’re out-rebounding their opponents by eight a game, which is real impressive.”
Selvig pointed out the Toreros play in the highly-competitive West Coast Conference, which ranks eighth in the country in RPI and features the likes of Gonzaga, St. Mary’s and BYU. The Big Sky Conference ranks 14th in RPI and its teams went 3-8 against West Coast Conference competition this season.
“They won’t be intimidated,” Selvig said of USD. “That’s a team that has won a lot of games. Gonzaga is in that league. They played at Gonzaga. It’s not like they’ve never seen a crowd.
“I’m sure they’ll be more motivated being here because it’s a big deal. There’s people here to watch. They’re into it and it’s two teams playing hard.”
It’s hard to find a weakness in the Toreros. They’ve got a dangerous sharpshooter in 6-foot senior guard Amy Kame, who averages 17 points per game. They’ve got an intimidating shot blocker in 6-3 Sophia Ederaine, who has rejected 75 attempts this season.
They also have impressive balance. Three players average in double digits in scoring, including Kame and forwards Malina Hood (12.7) and Felicia Wijenberg (10.2). The Toreros had a fourth in forward Katelyn McDaniel, but she suffered a season-ending knee injury last week.
“They pretty much have a little bit of everything,” Selvig said. “They’ve got quickness at the guard, a great scorer that’s a 6-footer and they’ve got size and they can come off the bench.”
One thing the Toreros will not have is homecourt advantage. Just like Montana, it has meant a lot to San Diego this season. The Toreros are 15-1 at home but 8-6 on the road. The Lady Griz are also 15-1 at home.
Montana posted its 11th straight home win on Wednesday over Pac-12 foe Washington State. The Lady Griz were without two starters – point guard Torry Hill injured her knee four days earlier and center Carly Selvig did the same in the first three minutes of Wednesday’s game – but compensated with heroics by guard Kellie Cole and forward Jordy Sullivan and a big boost by their reserves.
“It was terrible to see another starter go down,” Rickman said of Selvig’s departure. “I think we played in honor of her that game.”
Without Hill and Carly Selvig, several Lady Griz played different roles. Cole started at point guard and McCalle Feller got her first start at shooting guard. The changes will continue Monday. True freshman Alycia Sims, a Stevensville product, will likely get her first start at center.
“We have good players, just our margin for error isn’t as good,” coach Selvig said. “We aren’t as deep inside losing Carly, then of course you lose your most versatile defensive player.
“But Alycia did a great job and we played Maggie and Jordy together (down low), which hasn’t happened probably this year at all. Jordy moved to (center). And (guards) McCalle and Kayleigh (Valley) had as good of games as they have all year.”
Monday’s game marks the first time in 29 years the Lady Griz have played as late as March 24. If they win, they will have the distinction of going deeper into the spring than any other team in program history.
Monday’s winner will play again sometime between Wednesday and Friday. The opponent will be the winner of Monday’s Washington at Oregon game.
NOTES: Valley scored a career-high 15 points and Cole dished out a career-high nine assists against Wazzu ... The Lady Griz have four players sidelined by knee injuries, including Hill, Selvig, Haley Vining and Shanae Gilham ... Kame, a first team all-WCC pick, scored 30 points in Thursday’s win over Cal Poly. She has 1,502 career points ... Coach Selvig went head-to-head with San Diego skipper Cindy Fisher 11 years ago when she was head coach at Wyoming. Fisher’s team won that first round WNIT contest, 76-74, in overtime.