MISSOULA — A team with championship aspirations will get the opportunity to put those ambitions to an early test when the Montana women’s basketball team hosts Arizona in November and goes on the road to face South Dakota in December.
Those are two of nine nonconference games the Lady Griz will play leading up to the start of their 20-game Big Sky Conference schedule, which starts in late December and continues into the league tournament, to be held in Boise for the second consecutive season.
Counting a pair of home exhibition games, against Lewis-Clark State and Carroll, Montana will open the season with six straight home games, a block of contests capped by a visit from Arizona on Sunday, Nov. 24.
The Wildcats, who defeated the Lady Griz 100-51 in Tucson in December, rolled off six straight wins last spring to claim the WNIT title, part of a breakthrough 24-win campaign, the most victories for the program since 2003-04.
“That will be an exciting game for us to have here and will be a big game. Arizona had a phenomenal season,” fourth-year coach Shannon Schweyen said.
Montana will open the regular season on Nov. 5 against MSU Northern, a game that will double as Lady Griz School Day. That game brought more than 7,000 fans to Dahlberg Arena two years ago, 6,610 last season. Neither was the season opener.
“We’re going to have our School Day game right off the bat, which is going to be a different feel. It will be exciting to have a sellout right away for the ladies,” said Schweyen.
Montana will then host Fresno State and Grand Canyon before welcoming Arizona.
The Bulldogs, who won 19 games in 2018-19, advanced to the WNIT last season and have a staff that is quite familiar with Montana and the Big Sky Conference. Head coach Jaime White was formerly at Northern Colorado and associate head coach Mandi Carver was the 2001 Big Sky MVP for Idaho State.
Director of operations D’Shara Strange, the 2015 Big Sky co-MVP, along with Montana’s Kellie Rubel, played for White at Northern Colorado and spent last season on Seton Sobolewski’s staff at Idaho State.
Fresno State has finished above .500 all five years under White, with a pair of 20-win seasons. Three times the Bulldogs have advanced to the WNIT, once to the WBI.
“Jaime has done a nice job there,” said Schweyen. “They’ve been in contention in their league every year.”
Montana will spend Thanksgiving weekend in Southern California, facing Santa Clara and Cal State Fullerton at the latter’s tournament. Both were 14-win teams last year.
December will open with a road game at Utah Valley before the Lady Griz face their second major nonconference test, a game at South Dakota.
The Coyotes went 28-6 last season, which included a 64-41 victory in Missoula. South Dakota fell to South Dakota State in the Summit League championship game but had a good enough resume to earn a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament as an at-large selection.
Montana will close its nonconference schedule by hosting MSU Billings on Dec. 20.
When the Lady Griz open their season two months from now, it will be with their deepest, most talented team in years.
Seven players could be classified as a returning starter: seniors Taylor Goligoski, McKenzie Johnston and Emma Stockholm, juniors Gabi Harrington, Madi Schoening and Sammy Fatkin, and sophomore Sophia Stiles.
And that does not include incoming freshman Jamie Pickens, ranked by ESPN as one of the top 100 players in the nation in her class.
Should Schweyen finally be gifted a season of good health within her team after three largely defined by injury, Montana will likely be in contention for its first Big Sky championship since 2014-15.
“I think this is a championship team, without a doubt,” said Schweyen. “Even with so many players on the bench last season, we had our moments when we showed we can play with anybody in the league.”
Stiles hasn’t played in a regular-season game since Feb. 3, 2018. Schoening logged 30 minutes in Montana’s season-opening road loss at Gonzaga last November before being shelved for the rest of the winter with a foot injury.
And Goligoski didn’t play after Jan. 12, after suffering her own leg injury.
All watched from the sideline as Montana fell to Southern Utah in the first round of the Big Sky tournament in March in Boise.
“The Big Sky is going to be a big question mark,” Schweyen said of the 2019-20 season. “It was one of the most talented senior classes in the history of the conference.
“There are a lot of unknowns as far as what people are going to have next year. There are a lot of teams with almost entirely new rosters.”
And into that void do the Lady Griz hope to step.