Lady Griz vs. EWU 14.JPG

Carmen Gfeller (right) and the Montana women's basketball team will return to action after two weeks off Thursday when they play host to Portland State at Dahlberg Arena. Gfeller is averaging 14.0 points per game in Big Sky Conference action, which ranks 11th on the list of league leaders.

MISSOULA — Two weeks of practicing without games reminded Carmen Gfeller what she really likes about the Montana women's basketball team this season.

"Everybody gets along so well," said the junior forward, who will lead the Lady Griz into a home contest against Portland State Thursday at 7 p.m.

"I don't think you realize how much team chemistry matters until you're at a point where you need to come together as a group, understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each individual and how you can draw out the best in everyone."

With three games in the next five days, Montana will be challenged physically and mentally. After Thursday's test against struggling Portland State (0-5 conference, 5-7 overall), the Lady Griz have big ones against Northern Arizona (4-1, 7-6) at home on Saturday and at Montana State (3-2, 8-8) on Monday night.

It sets up well for the Lady Griz (3-2, 10-4) because they'll have a chance to knock off rust against a heavy underdog Thursday. Montana hasn't played in two weeks — last Thursday's game at Southern Utah was postponed, five days after a game at MSU was postponed because of COVID-19 — so the team is anxious to compete.

“We’ve tried to just work on ourselves. We’ve played a lot more, kept practices shorter but more intense, more game-like,” Montana coach Brian Holsinger said. “We’ve scrimmaged a lot more for sure. That’s the best you can do to prepare for these kinds of things.”

Gfeller believes her team is ready to hit the ground running Thursday.

"Obviously the postponed games have been a big disappointment, but regardless, this team has stuck together and Brian (Holsinger) has continued to push us in practice," she said.

Montana learned from its rough stretch on the road when league play restarted three weeks ago. Losses at Idaho State and Weber State prompted the Lady Griz to get back to basics, especially on the offensive end. Montana responded with a convincing home win over Eastern Washington two weeks ago and the team will try to build on that momentum.

"This is a conference where I think every game night you're going to be surprised with the outcome of games," Gfeller said. "We need to do all in our power to be prepared to secure wins.

"We will have a lot of games in a short amount of time this week, but I think we're more excited than apprehensive because this is what we prepare for."

Thursday's game marks Portland State's third in six days. The Vikings had a miserable stretch where they had four straight Big Sky games postponed because of COVID-19. They returned to action with a 70-58 home loss to Sacramento State Saturday, followed by a 68-44 loss at Eastern Washington on Monday night.

If Monday's game had just been the middle two quarters, the Vikings would have beaten the Eagles, 35-24. But Eastern (2-4, 4-11) outscored PSU 44-9 combined in the first and fourth quarters to mask a good stretch from the Vikings in the middle 20 minutes of the game.

"Credit to Eastern, they came out strong and they're playing with a lot of confidence after their win on Saturday versus Weber State," Portland State first-year head coach Chelsey Gregg said. 

"We can't expect to win any games by scoring six or three points in quarters. I liked the energy and effort in the third. We showed some fight and resiliency. But we have to have more than a few minutes of that to win conference games."

Notes: Portland State has three freshmen in its starting lineup. That's in contrast to the Lady Griz, who start three seniors ... Prior to this season, Gregg spent the past six as an assistant (2015-18) and then associate head coach (2018-21) under former Viking head coach Lynn Kennedy ... Portland State ranks dead last in the Big Sky offensively and defensively. The team averages just under 50 points while allowing almost 77 per game in league competition ... Montana is allowing a league-low 57.6 points per game in Big Sky action ... Gfeller is averaging 14.0 points per game in Big Sky play, which ranks 11th. Teammate Sophia Stiles ranks 10th in rebounding (7.0 per game in league action) and third in assists (4.5 per game). 

Bill Speltz is Missoulian Sports Editor and has served as Sunday columnist the past 15 years. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at bill.speltz@missoulian.com.

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