No one has been able to slow Damian Lillard this season. The Montana State Bobcats are about to get their first shot.
MSU travels to face Lillard and Big Sky Conference-leading Weber State for a key league game Thursday night. Lillard has torched teams all year, and is currently the leading scorer in Division I at 23.6 points per game.
The junior guard scored 30 points in a 76-69 victory at Eastern Washington last Thursday, and hit a career-high 8 3-pointers and scored 38 points two nights later in an 88-81 win at Portland State.
Lillard was again named the Big Sky player of the week on Monday.
The 2009-10 Big Sky MVP, Lillard has led Weber State in scoring in 12 of its 15 games this season. The Wildcats have won six straight, and lead the standings with a 12-3 overall record and a 4-0 mark in the league.
Lillard missed most of last season with a foot injury, playing in only nine games. But he has since reclaimed his place as the Big Sky's most elite guard. He now ranks 25th all-time in Big Sky history in scoring, and is 55 points shy of becoming the 19th player to score 1,600 points.
The Bobcats (7-7, 2-1 Big Sky) have won two in a row following a 73-69 win at Idaho State last Thursday. MSU is giving up 72.4 points per game, which ranks seventh out of nine teams in the conference, but leads the league with an average of 7.8 steals per game.
Two players are averaging double-digit points for the Cats: Forward Xavier Blount (11.7 ppg) and guard Christian Moon (11.6 ppg). Tre Johnson and Jamie Stewart average 9.2 and 9.1 points, respectively.
The game is important for Montana State on a couple fronts. A win would give the Bobcats a significant triumph over an established conference contender, and would also legitimize MSU as a challenger, as well.
GRIZ STILL GROWLING
For all intents and purposes, Montana's 2010-11 season ended in disappointment -- a 65-60 loss to Northern Colorado in the title game of the Big Sky tournament.
UM went on to lose to Duquesne in the CBI tournament a week later, but the Grizzlies' NCAA tourney chance was snuffed out by the loss in Greeley, Colo.
Montana has done a solid job to rectify that disappointment at least early this season, with a 12-5 overall record and a 3-0 start to its league schedule. The Grizzlies have now won five straight games following weekend wins over Eastern Washington and Idaho State.
UM and Weber State are the only unblemished teams in the Big Sky standings, which makes their game Saturday night in Ogden, Utah, a potential showdown of unbeatens.
Last year's Griz team was bolstered by the inside play of center Brian Qvale. But Qvale's graduation made Montana a bit more perimeter-oriented this season, which has been reflected by the strong play of guards Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar.
Cherry is UM's top scorer at 14.7 points per game, and he also averages 3.6 assists. Jamar, at 13.3 points, is the Grizzlies No. 2 point-producer. Jamar is also averaging 3.3 assists.
Montana plays at Northern Arizona Thursday night.
MSU guard Katie Bussey is having another productive season.
The senior from Alamosa, Colo., is averaging a team-high 17.4 points per game, which ranks third in the Big Sky. Bussey is shooting 43.5 percent from the floor, and averages 4.0 assists, which also ranks third in the league.
One of the top 3-point shooters in Big Sky history, Bussey has hit 35 triples this season, fourth-most in the league.
Bussey is just 21 3's shy of tying the career record in the conference. She has 217 3-pointers entering Thursday's game against Weber State, and currently ranks fourth all-time.
Weber State's Chelsea Warburton (2004-07) is the all-time leader with 238 3-point makes.
Idaho State's women swept their Montana swing last week, beating MSU 59-58 on Thursday before knocking off Montana 58-51 on Saturday.
It was ISU's first road sweep of the Montana schools since the 2000-01 season and just the second time in program history.
The Bengals were led by guard Kaela Oakes, who scored 18 points in each game. Oakes has now scored double-digit points in four straight, and earned a share of the Big Sky's women's player of the week award with Portland State's Kate Lanz.
Idaho State (11-5, 3-0 Big Sky) is undefeated in conference play for the first time since 2000-01, when the Bengals finished the season unbeaten.
AROUND THE LEAGUE
Eastern Washington's men will square off against defending Big Sky champion Northern Colorado on Altitude TV on Saturday. Tip-time at Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion in Greeley, Colo., has been changed to 4 p.m. to avoid a conflict with the Denver Broncos' NFL playoff game against the New England Patriots. Former Billings Mustangs play-by-play man Jerry Schemmel will call the game. ... Sacramento State's Kylie Kuhns leads the nation with 14 double-doubles. ... EWU's Brianne Ryan has had three games of 30 or more points this season. MSU's Rachel Semansky is the only other Big Sky player this season to have scored 30 or more.