MISSOULA -- Last weekend the Montana Lady Griz ran into a steadfast squad that seemed to do no wrong in front of a throng of supportive fans.
The result: A humbling loss at North Dakota in the finals of the Big Sky Conference basketball tournament.
On Wednesday, the Lady Griz are hoping to rekindle the magic that helped them post a 14-1 record at Dahlberg Arena. They may need every bit of hocus pocus they can muster to upset Pac-12 upstart Washington State in a first round WNIT matchup at 7 p.m.
“I think I finally got a taste of what it’s like for (opponents) to play in Dahlberg when we were at North Dakota,” Montana senior Jordan Sullivan said. “Their fans were into it.
“It was fun having atmosphere, but it’s tough. It did help them. They’re hitting last-second, no-look shots. Honestly, how did that go down? That’s what helps us. I can’t wait to go out there Wednesday. It will be so much fun.”
As happy as the Lady Griz (22-10) are to be playing, the Cougars (17-16) have reason to be even more ecstatic. They will be making their first appearance in a postseason tourney in 23 years.
“It’s a step in a big direction for this program,” Wazzu coach June Daugherty said.
“... They’re excited to: One, win a championship. A WNIT championship would be pretty special. And two, maybe prove to everybody maybe you just missed out on a great opportunity to have a team like Washington State in the NCAAs.”
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The Cougars play in one of the elite women’s basketball leagues in the nation alongside the likes of perennial power Stanford. They finished 9-9 in the Pac-12 and reached the semifinals of the conference tourney last weekend.
Daugherty believes her team is playing its best basketball at this point. Wazzu stopped Oregon last Thursday and No. 24 California on Friday before finishing up at the Pac-12 showcase event with a loss to Oregon State on Saturday in Seattle.
Leading the way for the Cougars are dangerous guards Tia Presley and Lia Galdeira. The former averages 19.3 points and the latter 18.4 with a team-high 80 steals.
“They’re both quick and they’ve both got good size for guards,” Montana coach Robin Selvig said. “They also have a 6-foot-4 girl, but I don’t think there’s any glaring size discrepancy between the two teams.
“What they’ve done is finished the year great. They got some votes for the Top 25 in the last poll. They had a heck of a schedule and finished very strong.”
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For many of the teams in the WNIT, one of the big challenges is overcoming the disappointment of failing to reach the Big Dance. Some simply cannot recover quickly enough emotionally.
Montana made the NCAA tournament two of the past three seasons and had high hopes of punching its ticket in 2014. The fact the Lady Griz came up short Saturday -- plus they lost their starting senior point guard Torry Hill to a knee injury and had to endure an all-night bus trip back to Missoula -- makes getting up for Wednesday extra challenging.
“After we lost it was hard to think about playing, kind of,” Sullivan said. “But the next day came and then I just started to think ... I was at my computer (Monday) night just hitting refresh to see if we made that WNIT list.
“It is an honor, another way to represent the university well. It’s another chance to play another organized college basketball game.”
Sullivan has extra incentive for Wednesday since it could potentially be her final game as a lady Griz. On top of that, her old AAU teammate, Hana Potter, plays for Washington State.
Still, it will be difficult for Sullivan and her teammates not to think about Hill when they take the floor at Dahlberg.
“I feel so bad for her,” Sullivan offered. “I cannot believe how strong she has been. I’m sure it’s hard for her but she’s just been incredibly upbeat about the whole thing and it’s admirable. Then Haley (Vining) too. What a cruddy (injury) situation for both of them.
“We just have to play confident. It’s tough to play without either of them but we still have a game. We still can compete. I just hope everyone is confident and believes they can go and take care of the ball.”
Wednesday will mark a reunion of sorts for Selvig and Daugherty. They coached against each other regularly in league play back when Daugherty guided the Boise State program from 1989-96.
“June is an outstanding coach and did a great job at Washington,” Selvig noted. “Obviously we had the battles back in the Boise days. We both had really good teams and she’s doing a good job at Washington State. It hasn’t been easy to get that thing going and she certainly has.”
Knowing the way Daugherty coaches, Selvig expects to see different looks from the Cougars. They played a lot of zone defense on Saturday, and if they pack it in Wednesday, Montana’s perimeter shooters will need to perform well.
Selvig believes his team is up for the challenge.
“We’re thrilled to be at home,” he said. “It’s a neat deal to be able to get out on the floor again here. Obviously we take a lot of pride here.”
The winner of the game will play Thursday’s San Diego-Cal Poly winner in the WNIT round of 32 sometime between Saturday and Tuesday. That game will be played at the site of one of the schools.
NOTES: Daugherty, a former Ohio State basketball star, was named the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association’s National Coach of the Year in 2008. Since becoming a survivor of sudden cardiac arrest, Daugherty has become a spokesperson for the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Association, filming a nationally-aired commercial ... Daugherty served a stint as an assistant coach at Stanford under Tara Vanderveer back in the 1980s ... Montana lost at Utah in the 2007 WNIT and to Wyoming in the 2003 WNIT, but beat DePaul in the 1987 WNIT event, 75-73, in Amarillo, Texas