Lady Griz bounced back to top of Sky
Lauren Cooper looks for someone to pass to during Montana's victory over Northridge in the women's Big Sky tournament title game. Missoulian file

Season in review

It was an atypical beginning for the Montana women's basketball team in 2000, but the ending turned out to be a familiar one.

After injuries raided the Lady Griz of much of their talent and ultimately left them with their first losing record under Coach Robin Selvig a year ago, UM was just hoping to make it through the first season of the new millennium intact.

But before the Lady Griz even suited up for their initial non-conference game, they were shorthanded by six. All-Big Sky Conference senior forward Linda Cummings (foot), junior Leah Meier (back), freshmen Jill Henkel (knee) and Cami Schenk (ankle) were lost for the year with injuries. UM also learned it would be without seniors Meg Thompson and Krista Redpath for at least the opening month.

And to pour more salt on the wound, UM wasn't picked as the preseason favorite by the coaches or the media for the first time in a handful of years. That honor was doled out to defending conference champion Cal State Northridge, which returned four of its five starters.

"When you're trying to bounce back from a 12-16 year, you've got a lot of things to straighten out," Selvig said. "Coming back and winning the league was what we wanted to do, but we weren't supposed to do it. … Just losing Jill and Linda, more questions came up with what this team was gonna do."

The outlook wasn't all bleak, however. Kodak all-Region 7 forward Linda Weyler returned for an encore after averaging 19 points and nine boards as a junior. Help would also come from Lauren Cooper, who was back from a foot injury after earning all-Big Sky honors as a sophomore, and senior point guard Megan Harrington, who had recovered from an anterior cruciate ligament tear in her knee. In addition, the injuries suffered during 1999 opened the door for several underclassmen to gain experience and provide the makings of one of the deepest benches in the conference.

Despite all of the changes, the Lady Griz put the pieces together quickly, proving they were up to the task of a difficult non-conference schedule that included NCAA participants Nebraska, Utah and Brigham Young. Although UM won just one of those games - a 64-56 decision over Utah - it could have swept all three had its offense been hitting on all cylinders early. That would prove to be a season-long Achilles' heel for UM.

"I'm sure Missoula fans are used to us getting those teams, but I was encouraged by the Nebraska game," Selvig said. "We were ahead at half. That showed me we could play with these people. I didn't know. I had a bunch of kids limping around out there. I think that (game) helped us."

The Lady Griz also got an unexpected lift when Redpath returned to the starting lineup against Nebraska just five months after the second operation on the ACL in her right knee. She scored 21 points in the loss after coming off the bench to score nine in the season-opening victory against Idaho a week earlier.

"Getting her back at all was a bonus," Selvig said.

UM plugged away and watched as its defense continued to shut teams down while its offense showed up only on occasion. After bolting to a 4-1 mark, it skid into the holidays with three straight losses coming against Gonzaga, BYU and San Diego State. It shot just 29 percent against the Bulldogs and scored 41 points, the third fewest in any game in school history.

The Lady Griz returned from Christmas break to host the Holiday Classic. A 73-44 pounding over Central Connecticut State in the opener prevented them from sliding under .500, and a flurry of free throws in the final seconds against Pacific bailed them out of another tough shooting night as UM improved to 6-4.

Then it was off to Idaho where UM faced former Big Sky foe Boise State in the non-conference finale. The Lady Griz shot over 40 percent for just the fourth time in 11 games, but the Broncs hit nearly half of their shots against the nation's top defense to keep UM at bay much of the afternoon. However, a late 6-0 run by UM lifted it past BSU, 66-64, helped Selvig reach career victory No. 500, and sent the Lady Griz into conference play on a winning note.

"It was not an easy non-conference schedule," Selvig said. "I knew we were gonna get better."

Six of UM's first eight Big Sky games were on the road, a place that proved harsh for every member of the conference. By the time the dust settled in March, only three teams had posted winning marks on the road during conference play at 5-3, and two others came up empty handed altogether away from home. The success the Lady Griz immediately found out of the Big Sky chute ultimately proved to be the difference down the stretch.

The Lady Griz took control of the conference by opening the first half of play with a 7-1 record. Their only road loss during that span came in a 65-60 overtime decision at Weber State. Also in that stretch came surprisingly easy home wins against Northern Arizona and Northridge. UM defeated those two schools by a combined 30 points.

"We had some big, big wins early in the conference season," Selvig said. "We don't win the league if we don't do that."

And that is because much of the rest of the league caught fire shortly after the midway point and pursued UM with verve. The Lady Griz were in position to clinch the regular-season title with three weeks to go. Instead, back-to-back losses on the road to NAU and Northridge dropped them to 10-3 in league and forced them to wait until they returned home to wrap things up in the final two weeks of play. Which it did.

In UM's penultimate conference game, it defeated Portland State 72-62 and earned the right to host the Big Sky tournament. It then won its final game against Eastern Washington to cap the Big Sky schedule with a 13-3 mark - two games better than Northridge and Idaho State. Equally impressive was its 8-0 mark at home during league action, a feat no other conference team duplicated.

UM's success didn't go unnoticed. Despite the decline in her offensive production from 1999, Weyler earned league MVP honors and Cooper joined her on the first team. Redpath was an honorable mention pick, and sophomore Simarron Schildt was selected as the league's sixth person.

"Linda didn't have the offensive year she had before, but there's a lot of things that go into winning basketball games," Selvig said. "Linda was better in other parts of her came. … She was almost too good offensively last year. What was important about her was she wasn't just a scorer. What we were trying to do was win games, and she obviously helped us."

Weyler proved clutch in the Big Sky tournament as well, almost single-handedly lifting UM to its 14th postseason title. After combining for 38 points and 20 rebounds against Weber State and Northridge, Weyler accepted the MVP tournament trophy amidst a rush of cheers. She had, undoubtedly, won the hearts of every Lady Griz fan during her five years in the program.

Following their 66-53 victory over Northridge in the championship, the Lady Griz learned of their NCAA fate, earning the West Region's 16th seed and drawing the top seed, Georgia. So they headed to Athens, Ga., for the first round where their anemic offense finally got the best of them. UM was held to a season-low 26 percent shooting as the fourth-ranked Bulldogs handed the Lady Griz their worst loss of the season, 74-46. UM finished 22-8.

"Many times I mentioned our offense was inconsistent, but I was happy with our season," Selvig said. "And it's a funny thing about our offense. We didn't shoot the ball well, but we led the league in offense."

They also corrected an off-year defensively, leading the Big Sky in scoring defense and field-goal percentage defense. UM was also among the top three in the nation in both of those categories.

"The most frustrating thing from the year before was our lack of defense," Selvig said. "I said early on that I liked what I was seeing. The ability to go deep really helped us defensively. It's what really helped us win the league.

"It was just a very, very satisfying year from the standpoint of what happened the previous year. I don't know if it was what the doctor ordered, but we got back on top and got a chance to go and play one of the best teams in the country. That experience is valuable."

Although UM loses three starters, including a pair of all-conference forwards, its leading scorer returns in Cooper, and Cummings, who averaged 15 points per game as a junior, will also be back. Guard Cheryl Keller, a strong defender throughout the season, showcased her offensive capabilities at the end of the season, and a number of talented underclassmen will have the opportunity to step into starting roles.

"I get excited when I think about next year. You're gonna miss what you lost, but we have some great players coming back. We've got a lot to build around," Selvig said. "There's starting spots open, playing time open. There's lots of opportunities. … I can't remember a year when so many things are open."

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