BOZEMAN - The last time the Montana Lady Griz lost four straight years in Bozeman was … well, never.
But history aside, Coach Robin Selvig's club carries more than enough incentive heading into Friday night's Big Sky Conference basketball matchup against Montana State at Worthington Arena. Although it's only the second week of conference action, this 71st meeting between the archrivals should have a critical bearing on the title chase.
"I won't have to give a Knute Rockne," Selvig said, referring to his pregame talk. "It'll be a big crowd, it'll be noisy, but we have the experience to handle it. We've played a tough schedule with the idea of being prepared for games like this."
Montana (13-4), riding a three-game winning streak, has the adrenaline pumping after launching its Big Sky campaign with a road sweep of projected title contenders Weber State and Idaho State. Now the Lady Griz have the opportunity to knock off a third contender on the road and underline their projection as the Big Sky's preseason favorite. They'd love to beat MSU, having lost to the Bobcats in the Big Sky tournament semifinals the past two seasons.
On the flip side, it shapes up as a must win for Montana State (8-7, 0-2), which lost at Weber and ISU. Falling to UM in their home opener would deal a severe, if not fatal, blow to the Bobcats, who tied Weber for the regular-season crown the past two winters, then lost to the Wildcats in the Big Sky title game.
"We haven't played close to our best basketball, so we hope to start showing it," said MSU coach Robin Potera-Haskins, who guided the Cats to 18 and 21 wins the past two seasons.
UM's last win in Bozeman came in 2000. That's also the last time the Lady Griz claimed the regular-season crown.
Defense is likely to decide Friday's contest. Montana tops the conference, giving up just 56.1 points per game, while MSU ranks last at 68.5.
"They like to push it, and we don't like teams to push it," said Selvig, who has guided UM to 17 conference championships in 25 seasons. "So our transition defense has to be solid. But even in a halfcourt game, they've got some weapons."
UM's offense has improved the past two weeks since hitting bottom in a 60-45 loss at Colorado State. The Lady Griz shot better than 45 percent in wins over No. 24 Utah and Idaho State, and buried a season-best 11 treys at Weber.
Center Hollie Tyler (14.3 points), forward Julie Deming (13.1) and guard Katie Edwards (10.2) all average double figures. But UM has also received offensive boosts from point guard Brooklynn Lorenzen, who averaged 12.5 points and 9.5 assists in earning Big Sky player of the week honors, and junior forward Juliann Keller. The former Malta standout has averaged 8.7 points and 7.0 rebounds in three games as a starter, replacing Jody McLeod - more of a rebounder than a scorer - at power forward.
"Juliann has come on like crazy," Selvig said. "She's been playing so well, in practice and in games. Mainly she brings more scoring, but her overall game has been very good."
MSU lacks the overall skill and experience of last year's team, and is shooting just 38 percent from the field. The Bobcats are led by guard Sheila Hutchison (14.3) and undersized forward Kati Burrows (11.6). Former Ronan standout Jana Smith has overcome a series of knee surgeries to earn a starting backcourt job, averaging 9.3 points while shooting a Big Sky-best 88.9 percent from the free-throw line. She scored 19 points last year against UM in the Big Sky semifinals.
The graduation of league co-MVP Isabel Stubbs has hurt the Bobcats in every area, but especially defensively and on the boards. You can bet UM will post-up Tyler and fellow 6-foot-3 junior Crystal Baird whenever possible against MSU's 6-2 Belinda Stubbs, Isabel's younger sister.
"We need to develop a stronger inside presence," Potera-Haskins said. "When you don't have a big center in there, the way we have the past couple years, it makes a big difference. One reason we're struggling with our outside shooting is that teams haven't had to worry as much about our inside game."
Notes: UM is averaging just 12.5 turnovers per game (second in the nation) and 13.3 fouls (fourth). … Lorenzen ranks seventh in the nation in assists with a 7.1 average and needs just 18 to become UM's career leader, surpassing the 587 of Skyla Sisco. Lorenzen stands third on the Big Sky list, and is on pace to become the conference's career leader. … Tyler has 173 career blocked shots. She needs three to move past Angella Bieber into second place on the UM career list. Lisa McLeod leads with 237. … Tyler has shot 20-of-35 (.571) during UM's three-game winning streak. … MSU has struggled from 3-point range the last five games, hitting 15-of-88 attempts (17 percent). … Smith missed MSU's final two non-conference games because of a sprained ankle and the flu. She's played in 12 of 15 games this season.