MISSOULA — Versatility has been key to Montana's fast start in Big Sky Conference play.

The Lady Griz basketball team has a multitude of players capable of scoring in the post or penetrating with the dribble. Consequently, the three- and four-minute scoring lulls the team experienced last season have ceased to exist.

First-place Montana will put its resurgent attack and 3-0 league mark on the line Saturday when it plays host to Northern Colorado at 2 p.m. at Dahlberg Arena. The Bears (1-1, 5-6) boast a six-game win streak against the Lady Griz that dates back to 2016.

"I've never beaten Northern Colorado so that's a big chip on my shoulder," Montana senior point guard McKenzie Johnston said. "We just need to continue doing what we're doing and keep getting better.

"We have different people scoring and it opens up our offense. Having different people to go to at different times makes it harder for other teams to scout us. It's been exciting and the energy has been great."

No one is more grateful for Montana's versatility than Johnston, who has been relied on heavily to generate offense the past several seasons. She's still relied on to direct the offense and didn't get a minute of rest in Thursday's win. But suddenly she has a lot of scoring help.

"Our posts have been kicking butt in there, which is great for us," said Johnston, referring to forwards Emma Stockholm and Abby Anderson. "They've been really opening it up for the guards to get good looks."

Montana started 3-0 in league play last season before dropping five of its next seven en route to a fourth-place finish at 9-11. The fast start feels different this season, according to coach Shannon Schweyen.

"Obviously the road wins are huge, and I don't care who it's against," Schweyen said of victories at Northern Arizona and Sacramento State. "Road wins are big to get."

Plus there's that improved ability to score inside and improved depth that gives you the feeling the Lady Griz are going to challenge for league supremacy.

"Our bench has been giving us a lot of good moments and it's nice to be able to get those (starters) a break," she said. "I think that's one thing that makes teams good in this league is to have some depth.

"As you get closer to the tournament, it's very important. This has been a stretch for us with four games in eight days where I think having depth has been important."

Northern Colorado won the conference two years ago and finished second last winter. But the Bears looked vulnerable on Thursday in a blowout loss at Montana State, 91-58. The Bobcats held a gaudy 48-15 edge in points in the paint.

"It was a tough loss," head coach Jenny Huth said. "Credit to Montana State ... They're a tough defensive team, along with being physical. They switched actions on us and it obviously worked really well.

"... We've played our best when we play inside-out and we struggled with that, especially in the second half. We can't give up 90 points on the road and expect to win or turn the ball over 22 times."

Northern Colorado is led by junior guard Alexis Chapman. The 5-foot-7 Texan is the only Bear averaging in double figures scoring at 13.5 points per game.

Still, Montana is taking nothing for granted. The last thing they want now is a home conference loss. 

"We're going to need everyone to step up," Stockholm said. "Northern Colorado is very good. We're just excited to have the opportunity to play in front of our home crowd and hopefully go 4-0 to start conference."

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Bill Speltz is Missoulian Sports Editor and has served as Sunday columnist the past 13 years. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at bill.speltz@missoulian.com.

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