BOZEMAN — Time off can be a killer for a team on a winning streak, but the Montana State women have taken an introspective approach during a one-game-in-16-days stretch that is undoubtedly testing their focus.
By the time they finally return to the court Tuesday night at home against Cal Poly, the Bobcats (6-3) will be hungry to push their winning streak to six games.
With so much down time, that could be easier said than done. The Bobcats, though, say they’re keeping their attention on what’s ahead.
“It’s a long season. There are going to be streaks,” senior forward Riley Nordgaard said. “There’s times when things are going well and times when things are a little bit harder to figure out.
“What’s cool about this team is that win or lose we are very competitive. That fire doesn’t really go out. You might think that when a team wins a bunch of games that they might get comfortable or satisfied, but I really don’t think that’s this type of group.”
MSU started the season with losses at Utah and Utah State, then beat Great Falls in its home opener before falling on the road to UC Davis.
It was a volatile opening stretch. But that’s when the tide turned.
The Bobcats won a tournament in Stockton, Calif., during Thanksgiving with victories over Pacific and Santa Clara, games coach Tricia Binford points to as two of her team’s most efficient.
MSU then returned home and beat Carroll and Seattle, followed by another road triumph over Portland — a 70-66 win in which it got great bench production while erasing a fourth-quarter deficit.
Star forward Peyton Ferris scored 17 points against the Pilots, but the difference came from contributions by reserves Margreet Barhoum and Annika Lai, who each scored 10 points. MSU’s bench contributed 22 points on 7-for-13 shooting.
Binford said the Bobcats’ bench is “starting to figure out how to embrace those roles, and that’s where we really have our greatest success. Our bench was very consistent in that game. It was our starters that struggled.
“But that’s a sign of a team that’s growing. I think it shows maturity when you’re struggling and you grind it out and find a way to win on the road.”
It was, perhaps, a shape-shifting performance.
“I’m really proud of the way we rallied and we responded. We didn’t let that one get away from us,” Nordgaard said. “Peyton did a heck of a job, and we had some players come off the bench and hit some big shots. All in all we rallied together and we were able to eek one out.”
Nordgaard’s impact since returning to the lineup can’t be ignored.
She missed three games at the outset of the season while serving a suspension for an unspecified violation of team rules, but she’s since returned to provide her typical all-around production.
In six games, Nordgaard is averaging 12.3 points — second to Ferris’ team-high 16.3 average — while shooting 44 percent. She is also averaging 7.0 rebounds and 2.1 steals while making 93 percent from the foul line.
More than that, Binford said Nordgaard has brought something that can’t be measured by statistics.
“With Riley back it’s pretty clear that our energy level has increased and our rebounding production has increased, and she’s an additional scorer with experience. It gives us a lot of options,” Binford said.
Like everyone else at Montana State this week, the Bobcats were immersed in final exams. Nordgaard, a business finance major, had three finals on Wednesday.
Nordgaard joked that her “brain is fried,” but she said was able to sleep in Thursday morning before grinding it out at what was a sparsely attended practice that afternoon.
Nordgaard and junior guard Delany Junkermier were the only veterans there. Ferris and junior point guard Hannah Caudill were out taking tests.
With finals week over, the team has a few days to knock off the rust in preparation for Cal Poly, which was 4-5 entering the weekend.
“I don’t think we’re focusing so much on the winning streak,” Binford said. “The past two games, to be quite honest, we took a little bit of a step backward from an offensive production standpoint. Our execution wasn’t as high as it was when we were in California. We’ve got to get that moving in the right direction.
“But we’re hitting our marks very consistently with our defensive numbers when we’re taking care of the basketball. The offense does affect the defense when we’re not. We’re just trying to keep our attention in the present, and I feel for the most part we’ve been doing that.”