During a Big Sky Conference schedule in which teams must navigate 20 games in 10 weeks and an uneven number of teams occupy the league, many games on the slate can be considered acceptable to lose.
Who can blame the league-leading Montana men’s basketball team for dropping a game at Portland State just two days before hosting rival Montana State?
Who can blame both PSU’s basketball teams for being up and down during their turn as the league’s “lone wolf”? The Vikings played their first 12 Big Sky games before January was over in the span of 28 days.
The Montana State women have been nearly impervious to lulls in performance due to scheduling. In an otherwise balanced league in which second and seventh place are separated by three games, the Bobcats have a three-game lead on the entire field with six games remaining.
With a game against Portland State in Bozeman coming just two days before MSU hosts rival Montana on Saturday, the Bobcats might be facing their greatest challenge yet during the league season.
MSU enters the second-to-last week of February playing their best basketball. The Bobcats are 13-1 in league play and on a nine-game winning streak to push their overall record to 17-6.
In head coach Tricia Binford’s 15th season at the helm, her team has been particularly impressive over its last five outings. After rallying from 14-point deficit late in the third quarter to force overtime against UM in Missoula —MSU won the game 66-61 in extra time — the balanced, veteran Bobcats have looked nearly unbeatable.
The next time out after the first rivalry matchup, Montana State avenged its only league loss of the season, a 69-68 double-overtime home defeat to defending Big Sky regular-season champion Idaho, by posting a 62-56 victory in Moscow. MSU drilled Eastern Washington 79-47 to complete the season sweep over the hapless Eagles.
And last weekend, MSU posted a dominant 74-55 win at Idaho State before putting on an offensive clinic in a 102-67 dismantling of last-place Weber State.
“Fortunately, this team has not been a team that’s been a challenge for motivation,” Binford said in an interview on Wednesday morning. “They have been locked in from Day 1 and they continue to stay lock in. What we have been challenging them on the second time around when we play opponents the second time is things we have to do better.
“We are really trying to challenge them on the big picture. This is a conference where you got one team that gets to move forward when you hit the NCAA Tournament and everyone else wants to get there, too. So we are going to have to continue to get better this time of year.
The Lady Griz are among the teams hoping to spoil Montana State’s goal of making a second trip to the NCAA Tournament under Binford. Montana out-played the Bobcats for three quarters in Missoula on February 1. UM’s unorthodox and unexpected matchup zone defense dared Montana State to take and miss 19 of its first 20 3-pointers.
But Montana melted down in the final period, missing all 15 of its field goal attempts and letting the Bobcats win the frame 14-3 to force overtime. MSU senior Fallyn Freije scored 14 of her game-high 27 points in the final seven minutes of action, including scoring 10 points in overtime to lead MSU to a crucial victory.
“The one here, going 0-for-15 is uncharacteristic not just of our team but any team in general,” UM head coach Shannon Schweyen said. “I don’t think you could hardly do that again. That was extremely rare in what happened with the way the whole scenarios went down. And unfortunately on our part, we had a lot of ways to win the game.
“We have to finish by getting good shots and making shots. I didn’t necessarily like our shot selection in the fourth quarter here at home. That’s one area we have talked about this week that we are working on.
“Looking back at the video, we missed 11 layups in that game and we had several in the fourth quarter. You can’t make them make a right-handed layup, unfortunately. Otherwise, we would’ve been in pretty good shape.”
UM has won three of four since, including beating Idaho in Missoula last Saturday. Two days before the last rivalry matchup, UM posted a 62-55 home win over Portland State.
Montana is relishing this week off while also trying to continue its improvements in Schweyen’s fourth season. For the first time since the Big Sky Tournament moved to a neutral site, the Lady Griz are in the mix for a postseason first-round bye.
UM enters Saturday’s rivalry game with a 9-6 Big Sky record. Despite getting swept by Idaho State this season for just the third time ever in the long-standing rivalry between Big Sky charter members, Montana sits tied for fourth place in the league standings with ISU. The top five teams get a bye in the first round of the Big Sky Tournament in Boise, Idaho next month.
“We’ve lost a couple of heartbreakers that could’ve put us in second place literally right now,” Schweyen said before her team’s practice on Tuesday. “But at the end of it all, it’s all about what we do when we get to Boise. We want to get a bye. That’s of extreme importance to us and we are working hard toward that.”
That push begins Saturday in Bozeman. The Lady Griz have lost eight of their last 10 against Montana State after thoroughly dominating the rivalry for nearly 40 years. Montana is 1-6 under Schweyen after posting a 78-24 record against MSU under legendary former head coach Robin Selvig.
This group of is the most veteran — Montana has three seniors and two juniors playing heavy minutes this season — of Schweyen’s teams. And although they have not won in Bozeman as a group nor have they beat Montana State in the last four matchups overall, the team remains confident entering Saturday’s showdown.
“They have more to lose than us,” UM senior point guard McKenzie Johnston, a Helena Capital product, said. “People might look at us as an underdog but we don’t look at it that way. Going into any game, I think we are the team that should be winning. When you are at the top, sometimes that is hard and you feel that pressure.”
The Bobcats have surged into first place with the deepest roster in the league. And the chemistry of a group that features five seniors and three true freshman prominently in its rotation has given the Bobcats the most balanced scoring attack in the conference.
During the nine-game winning streak, Binford has seen her team produce at least four scorers in double figures five times. The Bobcats have had five double-figures scores three times during the streak, including both games last weekend. Against Idaho State, senior wing Martha Kuderer and junior reserve Tori Martell scored 13 points, freshman point guard Darian White scored 12, Freije scored 11 and the platooning senior twin towers of Madeline Smith and Blaire Braxton each scored 10.
Against Weber State, senior Oliana Squires scored a season-high 21 points just a game after going scoreless. Freije, one of the league’s leading MVP candidates playing her one and only season at Montana State after spending three years at North Dakota, chipped in 18 points. White, the league’s leading candidate for Freshman of the Year, scored 15. Kuderer scored 14 in a team-high 30 minutes and Smith scored 12 in 23 minutes. Martell scored eight points, Braxton scored seven and the Bobcats scored a season-high, their most since February of 2017.
“It’s been a strength since Day 1,” Binford said of her team’s balance. “What we have been able to do throughout this season is to rotate kids in so we don’t lose energy and effort, particularly on the defensive end. But the reason we’ve been able to do that is our kids have been very consistent for us. And that’s a credit to the kids being ready to go and bring to the table what they are great at, their strengths and not trying to be somebody they are not.
“When people understand what their role is and they value that role, great things can happen.”
Binford credits her team’s chemistry to several factors. She said the team had a great summer with the three freshmen — White, Madison Jackson and Kola Bad Bear — all proving themselves to the seniors during workouts. Playing a trying non-conference schedule that included games against national powers like Gonzaga, Minnesota and Texas A&M meant plenty of time on the road and plenty of time enduring challenges together.
And a sense of the team’s potential has had Binford’s players “feeling like it’s March since early January because this team wants to do big things.” That focus will be tested at its highest level this week.
MSU has four of its final six games at home. The Bobcats are 8-2 at Brick Breeden Fieldhosue this season. But this week, the home games come with an extra challenge: MSU hosts defending Big Sky Tournament champion Portland State on Thursday before welcoming the Lady Griz to Bozeman for a rematch on Saturday afternoon.
“I don’t feel like I did a great job for the first Montana game for my team to prepare,” Binford said. “This team seems to do better with less information when they can just go out and battle. It’s the second time around, so really, we did a normal week for us and yesterday was a Portland State prep day. And then Friday will be our one-day prep day for Montana.
“It will be short, hopefully informative but we are only going to emphasize the things we need to emphasize. We want to get out of their way the second time around. There will be some new things but for the most part, we will be familiar with each other.”