111717-mis-spt-ladygriz-kentucky-02 (copy)

Montana's Mekayla Isaak, Madi Schoening, Sierra Anderson and head coach Shannon Schweyen, from left, react to a play in a recent home game against Kentucky. The annual four-team Lady Griz Classic will be held Friday and Saturday at Dahlberg Arena.

TOM BAUER, Missoulian

MISSOULA — A humbling November has given way to a hopeful December for the Montana women's basketball team.

The Lady Griz have kept their chins up through arguably the toughest five-game starting slate in the history of the program. Tangling with the likes of 20th-ranked Kentucky, 23rd-ranked Marquette and highly-touted Gonzaga has left them with an 0-5 record.

Now comes the payoff — if all goes as planned. The two-day Lady Griz Classic starts Friday and Montana will be hungry for its first win when it battles Cal State Fullerton at 7 p.m. at Dahlberg Arena.

"I didn't really know after we lost Kayleigh (Valley) and Alycia (Harris) what we would get out of those first five games," UM coach Shannon Schweyen said of season-ending knee injuries to her most established players in October.

"I was extremely proud of the way these ladies battled. Obviously I would have liked to have won one of those games or been closer. But I'm very encouraged by what the girls are doing. They're playing their hearts out."

Friday's clash with the cat-quick Titans (2-4) represents a prime opportunity for the Lady Griz to show how they've improved. Fullerton is no slouch, with wins over UC Santa Clara and Portland to its credit.

"They've got some good shooters and a nice post player," Schweyen said. "We didn't feel we played well at all down there last year (in a 72-56 loss), so the girls are excited to get a crack at them here at home.

"After you lose a couple you definitely want to get back out there and try to get that win. The girls are excited. They understand going in that this is an opponent on our level."

Schweyen and her assistants have used this week to shore up some areas after a pair of losses in the Cancun Challenge. The extended practice time was just what the doctor ordered and a chance for Taylor Goligoski, Montana's top scorer last season, to get into a rhythm after sitting for almost a month with a quadriceps injury.

"The Indiana State game I thought we played tentative," Schweyen said of Montana's most disappointing loss, a 57-45 verdict in Cancun on Thanksgiving Day. "I thought we looked like we were scared.

"Then we came out against Marquette the next night and we looked fearless. We talked about we need to play fearless. We're not going to be good if we don't play hard. It was nice to see Hailey Nicholson come alive. We handled their press and knocked down open shots."

Although it's hard to draw confidence from an 0-5 record, Montana has found a source in last season's game videos. The Lady Griz started four freshmen in 2017-18 and they've all made big improvements.

"We watch the film and we kind of laugh at it," sophomore guard Madi Schoening said. "We're like, 'Wow, that was kind of bad.'"

The question now, with six games remaining before Big Sky Conference play begins, is how much better are the Lady Griz? It's not always easy to tell against superior competition.

"Defensively we're so much smarter," Schweyen said. "Taylor (Goligoski) is still working her way back into the lineup and still isn't 100 percent back from her injury, which is a big change from last year for us. We're still missing that punch from Taylor.

"But a lot of girls have picked up in that area. It's great to see Jace Henderson come alive. She is so well-respected by her peers and one of our hardest-working kids. It's great to see the light come on and her shots go down."

One of Montana's top priorities is scoring more points. The Lady Griz ranked last in the Big Sky in 2016-17 with an average of 55.2 per game and they rank last this season at 56.8

Schoening knows one thing that would help.

"Completing our plays and running our plays instead of ... We've had a lot of shot clock, like down-to-the-last-second stuff," she said. "If we complete the play and get the shots they're meant for, I feel like we can get closer to those 40-percent games where we're shooting well."

The 37th Lady Griz Classic will tip off at 5 p.m. Friday when Oral Roberts battles Long Beach State at Dahlberg Arena. On Saturday Oral Roberts will play Fullerton at 5 p.m. and Montana will host Long Beach State at 7 p.m.

Notes: Montana is 68-4 in its home tournament. The Lady Griz had won it 16 straight years before falling to Utah State last November ... The Titans have a first-year coach in Jeff Harada, who guided Central Washington the previous three seasons ... The Titans have eight newcomers on this season's roster. They had only two wins over NCAA Division I opponents last season, including a 72-56 home triumph over Montana. 

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