BOZEMAN — With fresh faces and new moving parts, Montana State spent the better part of its nonconference women’s basketball schedule establishing a different identity.
Replacing the production of departed seniors like Peyton Ferris and Riley Nordgaard, who were so crucial to the Bobcats’ run to the NCAA tournament last season, was going to take ingenuity — and time.
Coach Tricia Binford and her staff formulated a plan during the summer to gradually install a new motion offense to take better advantage of the team’s perimeter shooting strengths. But one player that got a little bit lost in the wash was Delany Junkermier, who was playing out position and unable to match her statistical contributions to her high standards.
“Early on, we were trying to run a completely different offense with her playing a completely different position than what she played last year,” Binford explained. “So she played a lot of ‘four’, she played a lot of ‘three’, so she was falling back and forth playing two different positions.”
Through 11 non-league games, Junkermier averaged just 6.2 points while shooting 28 percent from the floor.
It wasn’t until the Big Sky Conference season began on Dec. 28 that Junkermier, a senior from Spokane, Washington, finally found her groove. In her first five league contests, Junkermier averaged 18.4 points and shot 58 percent from the field while sinking 18 3-pointers. By comparison, she made just six 3-pointers the entire preseason.
Despite missing MSU’s Dec. 30 home game versus Northern Arizona with an ankle injury, Junkermier has arguably been the Bobcats’ most effective player in the past three weeks.
“I’m very confident now. I’ve been able to get shots,” Junkermier said. “I think my main focus was getting to the rim, because when I see those go in it kind of opens everything else up. And now since I’ve recognized that my shots are going in I’ve been able to step out to the 3-point line immediately in games.
“I’m very confident in myself right now. I’m just trying to get fully healthy to play defense, because that’s my main thing I love doing. But I think I’m just trying to do anything necessary to win, so that’s what I’ll be carrying into this weekend.”
There’s a big game looming, as the Bobcats (9-8, 3-3 Big Sky) host archrival Montana (9-8, 5-1) on Saturday at Worthington Arena. Tipoff is scheduled for 2 p.m.
The Grizzlies will see a vastly different MSU team than last season, when Ferris was the catalyst for MSU’s two-game season sweep.
These Cats have been more perimeter oriented — although you cannot discount the impact of 6-foot-2 post Madeline Smith — with Junkermier, fellow seniors Hannah Caudill and Rebekah Hatchard, sophomore Oliana Squires and freshman Ashley Van Sickle lighting it up from long distance.
In a conference-opening sweep of Southern Utah and NAU, Montana State made a combined 34 3-pointers. The Bobcats made a school-record 18 3s against SUU. In conference games, MSU is averaging 12.2 3-pointers per contest.
Montana State’s 166 3s lead the Big Sky.
“They are playing more of a four-guard lineup with a post, which is not always what they’ve done before,” Lady Griz coach Shannon Schweyen said in a UM release. “They have a lot of kids who are shooting the ball well, and that’s always hard to defend.”
Nevertheless, the Bobcats saw their school-record 31-game home winning streak come to an end last Thursday against Portland State, but they bounced back two days later with a 35-point victory over Sacramento State.
Against the Hornets, Junkermier established a career high with 23 points while making 7 of 10 from the floor. The win was important, Junkermier said, to re-establish momentum going into rivalry week.
“I think it was really good. We got a lot of confidence back with our girls,” she said. “Obviously the Portland State game was a tough one. Just to be able to bounce back like that shows the growing maturity of this team, and I think that’s huge.
“There’s going to be ups and downs, and you just have to fight through the adversity.”
The Bobcats have won four of the past five games against Montana, including last season’s sweep. They have won three in a row over Montana at Worthington Arena.
Saturday’s game will be broadcast statewide on SWX.