LARAMIE, Wy. — For the past five seasons the Wyoming women's basketball team has had Montana's number.
Based on what's transpired this fall for the Lady Griz, it's going to be tough to buck that trend when the teams clash Monday at 6:30 p.m. at Arena-Auditorium. Season-ending injuries to Kayleigh Valley and Alycia Harris and season-interrupting injuries to guards Taylor Goligoski and Sierra Anderson have left Montana in a state of flux.
"I don't think we've had hardly a handful of practices with our top kids on the floor and that's not counting Alycia and Kayleigh," Montana coach Shannon Schweyen said. "It will be interesting when we finally do get everybody for a couple of practices and start getting comfortable together."
To their credit, the Lady Griz have managed to improve from last March, steamrolling in a pair of recent exhibition games against non-NCAA Division I teams. Whether that improvement is enough to neutralize a Wyoming squad that returns four starters is the big question.
"I feel like we're more confident in ourselves," said Montana's team leader, sophomore point guard McKenzie Johnston. "We're not having to focus on plays as much because everyone is starting to run them better. The little things are starting to click for us.
"Last year it could get messy at times. This year there's more people confident in themselves and they know what they're doing. We've shot better, we're rebounding better and our defense has improved a lot."
Wyoming, who opened the season with a home win over Adams State Saturday, 73-47, reached the second round of the WNIT in 2016-17. The Cowgirls are led by Missoula Sentinel grad Liv Roberts, a senior guard who was named all-Mountain West Conference despite tearing her ACL in February.
Roberts led the Cowgirls in nine statistical categories last winter and recorded a double-double in 13 of the 14 conference starts. She continues to deal with knee issues but tallied a team-high 14 points Saturday.
"They are one of the top 100 teams in the nation in efficiency offensively," Schweyen noted. "Their numbers are unbelievable. Their starters, literally every girl shoots over 40-some percent. They shot an incredibly high field goal percentage as a team last season.
"That's part of the system they run. They're really patient and work for good shots. Their scorers know when to; take shots and their non-scorers know not to shoot it. And they're always tough at home."
In last Tuesday's exhibition win over Black Hills State, Schweyen went with a starting lineup that included guards Johnston and Madi Schoening and forwards Mekayla Isaak, Jace Henderson and Hailey Nicholson. Henderson's continued improvement has been a bright spot along with the emergence of true freshman guard Sophia Stiles of Malta, who was destined to redshirt until the injury bug hit Montana's backcourt.
Monday may mark Stiles' official debut, although Schweyen was not saying for sure Sunday. Considering Goligoski and Anderson are questionable for the game, Stiles' presence could come in handy.
"I think she has a chance to be a great player," Schweyen said. "She carries herself well out there. She's fast with the ball. She's very smart for a freshman.
"It's nice to have her kind of speed and quickness out there. It stands out for sure. She's got something that some of those kids don't have. And it's very much needed for us."
Montana might want to focus on getting off to a good start Monday. Last December the Lady Griz spotted the Cowgirls a 34-21 halftime lead and never recovered, eventually dropping a 67-42 verdict.
Johnston feels her team is better quipped to avoid long scoring droughts this season.
"We're sharing the ball well," she said. "When your teammate gets you a great pass you want to knock it down.
"Last year we were creating more of our own shots. This year we're penetrating, kicking ... The other team has to worry about more players out there because everyone is doing their part."
The Lady Griz will play their first regular-season home game on Thursday against Southeastern Conference foe Kentucky.