SPOKANE – The buzzword word is separation.
The Montana women’s basketball team will try to separate itself from the last nine Lady Griz squads in the NCAA tournament by winning its opener Saturday at 4:30 p.m. inside McCarthey Athletic Center. To do that, Montana’s shooters must create separation against 14th-ranked Georgia’s aggressive defense, which ranked among the best in the SEC.
The fourth-seeded Bulldogs (25-6) allowed about 53 points per game during the regular season despite playing in a league with seventh-ranked Kentucky and 10th-ranked Tennessee. The 13th-seeded Lady Griz (24-7) weren’t far behind statistically, allowing 55 points per contest.
If the numbers hold true, baskets are going to be at a premium Saturday.
“It’ll be a battle,” Montana coach Robin Selvig said. “I think they’re pretty physical so I’m kind of glad we’re coming off a game against Northern Colorado because that’s just a slug-’em-out from the start.
“We’re going to compete and fight tooth-and-nail for every rebound and every loose ball. That’s the nature of our team. We got here pretty much because we defended people every night and Georgia would probably say the same thing.”
The Bulldogs employ both man and zone defense. They’ll challenge Montana’s shooters with exceptional quickness at the guard position and rare strength down low.
Neutralizing Georgia’s advantage in those areas will likely require that the Lady Griz convert a good number of 3-point attempts.
“What you’re not going to get on Georgia is any easy baskets, and probably not going to get transitions unless we get a steal or two,” Selvig said. “They’re just so solid fundamentally and they play very hard.
“When we get good looks we’ve got to make them. When we’re really good is when we get a couple kids making shots. I don’t think we’re going to get a whole bunch down low. So I do think the 3-point shot is critical.”
Montana senior post Katie Baker, MVP of the Big Sky Conference, says composure is crucial. The Lady Griz watched the Montana men’s basketball team struggle with bigger and stronger Syracuse on Thursday night and senior guard Kenzie De Boer took something away from that game.
“We just need to be confident,” she said. “I think our boys lacked a little bit of confidence … I think us being older and having a lot of seniors, that will help us to have some confidence to know we can play with a great team.”
Georgia’s defense is effective for many of the same reasons that Montana’s defense has been effective. And the Bulldogs aren’t afraid to expend their energy on that end.
“When it’s really clicking, we’re doing the things not everybody wants to do,” said Bulldogs 33-year coach Andy Landers, who has guided his team to five Final Four appearances. “We’ll step in and take a charge. We’ll leave our man to help guard your man. We sprint the floor to eliminate the possibility of transitions.
“Just a lot of little things. They’re not a group we have to beg during timeout to play hard.”
Like Montana, a lot of Georgia’s offense comes from two players. For the Lady Griz it’s seniors Baker and De Boer. For the Bulldogs it’s seniors Jasmine Hassell at forward and Jasmine James at guard.
Hassell and James have played in four straight NCAA tournaments. They’ve learned how to spot a worthy opponent when they see one, but by the same token they’re not going to be overwhelmed by Montana’s superior crowd support.
“Montana is really a good all-around team,” James said. “We understand we’re going to have to come out and play hard, play good defense to come out with the win.
“In the SEC you have to go on the road and play in front of crowds in the thousands. I think it will be a good thing, period, to have a great crowd. Whether it’s their fans or our fans, I’m looking forward to it.”
With the leadership of four seniors and Big Dance experience benefitting five members of his team, Selvig is optimistic his squad will not be overwhelmed by its SEC foe. He can’t guarantee his Lady Griz will make enough shots to stick with the Bulldogs. He is confident they won’t back down.
“It’s not a game for the meek, and it hasn’t been for quite a few years,” Selvig said. “The difference is a lot of times when we got to the NCAA or played someone in the top 20 there was a big difference between strength, speed and quickness. With my team this year, I think we’ve got pretty good strength.
“We’re not as athletic as Georgia with its speed and quickness, but we have one of my stronger teams. We won’t get knocked around that much.”
Baker says it’s all about taking care of the ball and working hard for open shots.
“Every possession you have is gold because of that frontcourt they have,” she offered. “We need to limit our turnovers, execute our offense, be patient and work the ball around.
“… We’re the underdogs. We have nothing to lose going into this game and knowing that and playing like that will be to our benefit. We can’t play scared. We will come out with a fight and play like it’s our last game.”