Lady Griz V Eastern Washington 7

Montana guard Gabi Harrington is coming off a strong performance Saturday at Idaho in which she collected eight points and nine rebounds. Harrington, shown dribbling in a Jan. 9 home game against Eastern Washington, will try to keep it going Thursday when her team plays host to Idaho State.

MISSOULA — Two heart-rending road losses have the Montana women's basketball team feeling a sense of urgency with a four-game home set coming up.

The Lady Griz will try to turn things around starting Thursday when they entertain Idaho State at 7 p.m. at Dahlberg Arena. The Bengals have lost three of their last four and are just as antsy to get back on track, trailing Montana by a game in the Big Sky Conference standings.

"They're definitely one of the most physical teams we'll play against," Lady Griz senior point guard McKenzie Johnston said. "But they're very talented, especially on the defensive end. They take a lot of shots away and make you feel rushed.

"They're big into doubling our posts and they just don't let us run our offense easy. We have to crack down and take what they give us. We might have to make plays outside of our offense."

Montana (4-3 conference 9-7 overall) fell from second to fifth in the league standings with road losses to Portland State and Idaho. Montana State and Idaho sit atop the standings, each with one Big Sky loss.

To climb back in the running, Montana coach Shannon Schweyen says her team must understand every opportunity on the offensive end can be the difference between success and failure in the balanced Big Sky.

"Shooting the ball just a little better is going to give us a chance to win more games," she said. "Saturday at Idaho we didn't shoot it well (19 for 62) and to still have a chance to win that there ... It just helps a ton if everybody can make one more shot.

"We talked in practice this week about how every possession is important and you can't think they're only important when the game starts getting tight down the stretch. You can't take any plays off. Getting them to play with urgency for 40 minutes always helps improve your chances of being in there at the end."

Idaho State (3-4, 7-9) has one of the best coaches in the league in veteran Seton Sobolewski. His team has beaten Montana in three of their last four meetings. Last January in Pocatello the Bengals had the Lady Griz totally flummoxed in a 50-34 victory.

"They're always hard to score on and they've got improved quickness on the perimeter," Schweyen said of the Bengals, who like to play man defense. "Callie Bourne is really playing some good basketball and they've got the (Dora) Boles girl who is shooting well. They're really balanced.

"For not having a super-strong inside game — that might be one of the weaker parts of their game, not having a lot of depth inside — they execute well offensively and they're good at exposing things you do on defense."

Montana needs to find a way to finish better in close games. The Lady Griz trailed by just two baskets with 2 minutes left before fading in last week's loss at Portland State. On Saturday, they had possession with time running out but couldn't convert on two shots that would have given them the win at Idaho.

"Walking away from those games you realize you have a lot of things still to work on, learning how to close out a game better," Johnston said. "If we learn from it, that's all that matters now moving into this four-game home stretch. Playing at home is a different type of environment and hopefully we can build moving forward."

Only Idaho has been better than Idaho State defensively in league games this season. The Vandals are allowing an average of 59.8 points per contest and held Montana to 51 on Saturday. The Bengals have allowed an average of 62.3 points per game, which has helped them stay competitive after losing standout Estefania Ors to injury against Arizona State.

After Thursday, the Lady Griz will host Weber State on Saturday and Portland State next Thursday before a showdown with Montana State on Saturday, Feb. 1, at Dahlberg Arena.   

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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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