MISSOULA — Stopping the opposition has become a conundrum for the Montana women’s basketball team.
It all started two weeks ago after the Lady Griz lost a home heartbreaker to archrival Montana State. After that they dropped three straight in surprising fashion on the road, surrendering a career-high 40 points to Savannah Smith at Northern Colorado and a career-high 31 to Jacey Bailey Monday night.
The Lady Griz need to figure things out in a hurry with Big Sky Conference powerhouse Portland State invading Dahlberg Arena for a 7 p.m. game Thursday. The Vikings (21-6) bounced Montana at home in early January, 78-60, and the Lady Griz have lost two key roleplayers since then in guards Taylor Goligoski (knee) and Katie Mayhue (foot).
Point guard McKenzie Johnston said the Lady Griz need to do a better job of executing the defensive game plan given to them by their coaches. The cost of not following through was pretty pricey on Monday.
"Right now it's all about gaining a little of momentum before going into the Big Sky tournament next week," Johnston said. "Portland State is one of the top teams in the conference, so getting a win would give us confidence, especially with some of the losses we've had."
Starting better would be a good place to focus first for the struggling Lady Griz (12-15 overall, 7-11 conference). They spotted Southern Utah a 12-point lead in the first half of Saturday's loss and suffered through a nightmarish start at Northern Arizona Monday, trailing 29-10 after one period.
A slow start keyed Montana's loss at Portland State in January. The tall, senior-dominated Vikings raced to a 29-9 lead in the first period.
"They were lighting it and credit to them, they came out ready to go and we did not," said UM coach Shannon Schweyen, whose team struggled with the Vikings' zone defense. "We didn't have much of an answer for what they were doing to us.
" ... It was disappointing we didn't adjust better. They had a little bit of everything going — transition, their bigs were scoring. My bad for us not going zone earlier. I thought that slowed them down a lot when we did. I kept thinking we'd pull our heads up but we didn't."
Some of Montana's defensive issues are fixable and others are not so easily remedied.
What the Lady Griz can control is their level of effort. Good old-fashioned hustle goes a long way toward winning in the Big Sky Conference.
On the other hand, inexperience and a lack of depth are always going to hurt on the defensive end. There's no way around it for Schweyen, whose four reserves are all first-year players.
On the positive side, Montana's bench turned in a rock-solid effort Monday at Northern Arizona. The reserves combined for 26 points, which was the most by the group in a single game in more than two months.
Redshirt freshman forward Abby Anderson scored a season-high 10 points. True freshman and Missoula Sentinel grad Jordyn Schweyen knocked down three 3-pointers to match her season high of nine points, and Carmen Gfeller and Sentinel grad Kylie Frohlich both scored as well.
“That was the bright spot of the game," Schweyen said. "Every girl who came in did great. It was the best our bench has played in a long time.
“ ... As we head into the tournament, we’re going to need some depth and people stepping up and giving us some breaks if we’re going to have any sort of chance to make a run next week."
Notes: Montana sits in seventh place in the Big Sky and cannot move up before the league tourney next week in Boise, Idaho. If the Lady Griz stay in seventh, they will play their tourney opener on Monday at 5:30 p.m., probably against Southern Utah. If Montana drops to eighth or ninth place, they will play Monday at 2:30 p.m. against either Northern Arizona or Sacramento State ... If the Vikings win Thursday, they will tie their program record for Big Sky wins in a season, which the 2008-09 Vikings set while going 14-2 in league play ... Johnston takes 957 career points into Thursday's game. With at least three games remaining this season, she could become the 34th player in program history to reach 1,000 points.