MISSOULA — Worthington Arena has become a house of horrors for the Montana women's basketball team.
The Lady Griz have lost four years in a row at Montana State's home digs. The Cats' superior talent and strong coaching are big reasons, although you may argue Montana's icy-cold shooting has been just as critical, with the Lady Griz shooting a combined 33.6 percent.
"Something in the water in Bozeman," joked Montana senior post Jace Henderson. "... Maybe there's a little bit more nerves here and there."
The Lady Griz are in a better place than they've been the past two seasons and they're out to prove it Saturday at 2:05 p.m. at Montana State. The teams are relatively even on paper, with each sporting a record of 5-4 in Big Sky Conference play.
Bobcats coach Tricia Binford, whose squad is coming off a humbling Saturday loss at Idaho State, expects a stiff test from Montana.
"I think they’re more experienced than the last couple years. They’d been a little bit young," she noted. "So you have your veterans really stepping up.
"Obviously Jace Henderson is (having) a fantastic season. She’s a veteran, she’s a senior, she’s doing a great job in the paint, and I think that’s going to be a huge key for them. And obviously (point guard) McKenzie Johnston is in a lot of what they do."
Henderson leads the Big Sky Conference in field goal percentage (59.3) and ranks third in rebounds per game (8.4). Almost all of her looks come in the paint, so the Bobcats will do their best to clog the middle, forcing someone to beat them from the perimeter.
Montana struggled mightily when Idaho State doubled down on Henderson last week. The Lady Griz adjusted to the tactic on Saturday in a win at Weber State.
"That was big," Montana coach Shannon Schweyen said. "Hopefully we can carry over some of that momentum.
"Experiencing what it's like to win on the road is big. We've played in front of some big road crowds, 6,000 in Arizona, 6,000 at Gonzaga. We've got some of that experience, which I think will help us."
Montana State will have the most prolific scorer on the floor in 6-foot-1 senior forward Claire Lundberg. A transfer from Seton Hall, she averages 17.6 points per game — more than five points more than Montana's top scorer, Henderson.
Lundberg will be hungry to get back on track after scoring just eight points in Saturday's 61-43 loss at Idaho State.
"I compare her a little bit to Kayleigh Valley," said Schweyen, referring to a former Lady Griz who was good enough to earn Big Sky Conference preseason MVP accolades. "She's very similar.
"... We've got to do a good job on her. She's scoring it up for them. Contain her as best we can. Not letting them get a lot of good looks from three will be important. And we've got to go out and do what we do well, and hopefully that's playing some great defense."
Montana has a transfer of its own and she has been the most pleasant surprise on the team this winter. Former Arizona Wildcat Sammy Fatkin has been a godsend at shooting guard, giving the Lady Griz the outside shooting threat they desperately needed last week with four triples at Weber State.
"Definitely Shannon (Schweyen) is starting to bring in her players the last couple years and you’re starting to see them gel together," said Binford, who boasts a 3-1 record against Schweyen in head-to-head matchups.
"They’re transitioning a little bit more than in years past. They’re a faster team, and I think they’re getting a lot more into that transition game. It’s not going to be a half-court grind the entire game.”
In the end, Saturday's game may come down to good old-fashioned grit. The one time a Schweyen-coached team was able to beat Binford's Bobcats (last February), the Lady Griz dominated the boards, 48-23.
For Henderson, a Billings product who has played in and watched a lot of Cat-Griz games, the key to victory boils down to one word: Energy.
"It's fun. We get such a great fan base there. They get such a great fan base," she said. "To go and compete in a rivalry that has so much pride and tradition is really cool."
Cat-Griz Notes: The game will be televised statewide on SWX ... Montana (10-8) and Montana State (10-9) are tied for fifth in the Big Sky. That's noteworthy because the top five finishers in the league race receive a bye in the first round of the conference tourney next month in Boise, Idaho. ... Montana has the historical advantage over MSU, holding a 28-16 lead in match-ups in Bozeman and a 78-27 lead overall. However, the Bobcats have won five of the last seven meetings. ... Montana State is 5-3 at home this season and Montana is 3-5 on the road.