Lady Griz vs Lady Bobcats-18-tm.JPG

Senior guard McKenzie Johnston (32) will lead the Montana women's basketball team into its home opener against MSU Northern on Tuesday at 11:30 a.m. The Helena native collected a team-high 19 points and eight assists in last week's exhibition overtime win over Carroll.

MISSOULA — Between the near-capacity crowd and the intriguing opponent, Tuesday morning's opener for the Montana women's basketball team promises to be quite entertaining.

The Maroon & Silver will battle MSU Northern in their third annual Lady Griz School Day game at 11:30 a.m. at Dahlberg Arena. Last year the event drew 6,610 fans, many of whom were elementary students that provided an electric atmosphere.

"I always think back to our first (School Day game) when we played Seattle U, I remember our crowd was cheering when the other team made baskets," Montana coach Shannon Schweyen said with a smile. "Once we got that part straightened out ...

"It's just so fun to see in the videos afterwards all the fun the kids are having in the stands. It's unreal the amount of letters we get afterwards talking about how their kids have never been to the University of Montana before and they've never been to an athletic event."

MSU Northern features a number of players with western Montana ties, including former Lady Griz forward Hailey Nicholson. She transferred prior to last season.

The Lights, an NAIA team that beat Mount Royal University in their debut on Oct. 20, also feature sisters Peyton and Ryley Kehr and Sydney Hovde, all of Columbia Falls. Hovde is a transfer from North Idaho College.

"When you play those Frontier schools people are familiar with kids," Schweyen said. "There tends to be a little bit more local interest, so I think that adds to the crowd support."

Montana starts the season excited but banged up. Starting guard Sophia Stiles in nursing a sore shoulder. Forward Madi Schoening didn't see any playing time in two exhibition games because of a back injury.

"But I'm excited," Schweyen said. "I'm liking the way our girls are getting after it. They're fired up and ready to go and the main nucleus of them are there every day in practice. They're hungry."

The Lady Griz had a close call with Carroll in their second and final exhibition game last week, escaping with a 74-70 overtime win. Was Schweyen concerned with the way her team was pushed by an NAIA program? Not too much really.

"They're a very talented team. People forget they won at Boise two years ago and Boise went on to the NCAAs that year," the coach said of a Fighting Saints squad that is picked to win the Frontier Conference.

"They shot the ball well. We did not to get going, then we did later. But we've got to get better defensively. We've got to get dialed in on our rotations and get better closing people out (stopping drives to the basket)."

Guards McKenzie Johnston, Gabi Harrington and Sammy Fatkin have been the standouts so far this season. Johnston had 19 points and eight assists in the win over Carroll and Harrington 24 points and eight rebounds in a win over Lewis-Clark State the week before. Fatkin scored 19 points in the Maroon-Silver scrimmage on Oct. 22.

Without Schoening, Schweyen has had to tweak her starting lineup. The fact that Stiles, Harrington, Johnston and Emma Stockholm are in the lineup is no surprise. The fact that 6-foot-2 sophomore Abby Anderson is in there despite averaging less than 2 points per game last season is a surprise.

"Abby has had some big days in practice," Schweyen said. "She alters things around the basket so much. She's long, very good passer.

"With Madi out, somebody needed to step into that role and she's been a good defender and working hard. She's had ups and downs and we're trying to get more even play out of her but I'm very happy with how she's progressed."

The Lady Griz will face their first NCAA Division I opponent a week from Friday, playing host to Fresno State.

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Bill Speltz is in his 13th year as Missoulian Sports Columnist. He also guides the sports dept., scheduling day-to-day coverage. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at bill.speltz@missoulian.com.

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