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Eastern Washington 3-0 in league for first time

The Montana Lady Griz and the Eastern Washington Eagles are tied for the Big Sky Conference basketball lead with 3-0 records.

But EWU coach Wendy Schuller knows there's a difference. Montana's three wins have come on the road, while EWU's have come in the cozy confines of Reese Court in Cheney, Wash.

"I think the biggest key has been having the opportunity to play at home - I'm not going to lie," Schuller said with a laugh from her office on Monday. "We've been fortunate to get established at home. Now, we have to go see what we can do on the road."

Still, this is the first time in Big Sky history that the Eagles have won their first three conference games. And Schuller sees a bright future for her young team, which she describes as "one senior, one junior and elsewhere, all babies."

"We're starting to do the little things that win games," said Schuller, who has guided EWU to 29 victories the past two seasons, the Eagles' best back-to-back showings since the late 1980s. "We're also getting some contributions from more than one player, which is a good sign."

The Eagles' unquestioned leader is 6-foot-2 senior Kathleen Nygaard, who leads the Big Sky in scoring (20.0 points per game), rebounding (10.6) and field-goal shooting (.557). Nygaard finished with game highs of 23 points and 16 rebounds last Saturday in an 81-66 thumping of Portland State, hitting 9-of-15 shots while collecting four steals and three blocked shots.

"Sure, I'm biased, but I think 'Kat' is the best player in the league," Schuller said. "She has two, sometimes three defenders around her in the post, and she still gets it done. And the way people are collapsing on her, it means other people are getting open looks."

EWU shot hit 8-of-16 shots from 3-point range against PSU, and 48 percent overall. Brandie Bounds hit a pair of 3-pointers and Ashley Jamison added another trey as EWU turned an 11-point halftime lead into a 19-point cushion five minutes into the second half.

Forward Julie Page joined Nygaard with a double-double (14 points, 11 rebounds), while guard Stephanie Ulmer had 11 points. Freshman point guard Joanna Chad had 10 points and seven assists.

EWU's main weakness continues to be ballhandling; the Eagles had 22 turnovers against PSU, and their 21.9 average is worst in the league.

EWU travels to Idaho State on Thursday and two-time defending champ Weber State on Saturday, trying to duplicate the sweep that Montana pulled off a couple weeks ago. Then EWU completes the first half of league play at home against Montana State on Feb. 5 and Montana on Feb. 7.

"It's huge, what Montana has done on the road," Schuller said. "They are definitely in the best spot right now. But I also like the way our team is playing."

Montana trekked to Bozeman last Friday and dismantled Montana State 60-44, handing the Bobcats their fifth loss in six games. MSU shot just 24 percent from the field in scoring its lowest total at home against the Lady Griz since 1975.

Still, third-year MSU coach Robin Potera-Haskins remains her usual feisty self. Last year she proclaimed her Bobcats the "dominant team in Montana," and she didn't go gently into that good night this time around either.

"You just can't panic," said Potera-Haskins, whose Bobcats have defeated the Lady Griz the past two years in the Big Sky tourney semifinals. "I think the kids are panicking right now. But from a coaching standpoint, you don't panic. We've got two games at home (this week) against Northern Arizona and Sacramento State, two teams that we're very capable of beating. We gotta take care of business there."

"We're not that much behind the team that's 3-0," she added. "(Montana) is not that much superior to us. If we can knock down a couple shots … it puts more pressure on them, and then they're a little stressed. They didn't have stress the entire game. We're not making the shots that would put us in position to be successful, but at least we're not quitting."

Montana missed a number of easy shots at the start of the game, yet still jumped in front 16-2. Lady Griz coach Robin Selvig, who has participated in more Griz-Cat contests than anyone as both a coach and a player, said jitters are part of the rivalry.

"That's the nature of these (rivalry games)," he said. "You really work on trying to have composure. But anytime you're playing so hard, you gotta make sure you don't play so hard on offense that you lose finesse. … Sometimes you see airballs. Guys are out there jacked, and there's a big crowd. But that's where our experience helps us."

Idaho State came into last week averaging nine 3-pointers per game, the most of any Division I team in the nation.

Yet even when the Bengals struggle from long range they're competitive, as they proved in a 64-59 victory at Northern Arizona last Saturday. ISU was just 1-of-10 beyond the arc, but received excellent production from post players Annie Anderson, who matched her career high with 21 points, and Molly Hays, who collected 19 points and eight rebounds.

"We forced them out of their 3-point game, so their post players got it done," first-year NAU coach LaurIe Kelly told the Arizona Sun. "That was the difference."

ISU led just 59-57 with a minute remaining when point guard Merrilee Udy threaded a perfect pass to a slashing Anderson for a basket. Anderson was fouled on the play and added the free throw for what proved to be the decisive points.

Anderson's career-high entering this season was 12 points, but she's scored 21, 19 and 21 points in the past three games.

Hays, the true freshman from Missoula Hellgate, leads ISU in scoring (13.9), rebounding (9.2), steals (2.0), field-goal shooting (.546) and free-throw shooting (.833).

Portland State forward Sarah Hedgepeth, returning after a five-game absence because of a wrist injury, tallied 21 points and 14 rebounds in the Vikings' loss at Eastern Washington. Hedgepth played 28 minutes, hitting 6 of 10 shots despite playing with her wrist and hand heavily bandaged.

"She's probably not 100 percent, but she's still a force," Schuller said. "She's big and strong, and that's not going to change."

Sacramento State has won only two Big Sky games the past 2fi years, but the Hornets are no longer a pushover under first-year coach Dan Muscatell.

The Hornets won at Portland State two weeks ago, and gave two-time defending champ Weber State all it could handle last Saturday before falling 47-43.

The visiting Wildcats, who shot just 29.6 percent from the field, snapped a 43-43 tie with 11 seconds left on Angela Sampson's put-back. Sac State's Tyeisha Brown then missed a 10-footer, and Weber's Julie Gjertsen made two free throws to clinch it.

Gjertsen led Weber with 16 points, but made just 4-of-14 shots. Senior Danielle Iceman had 11 for Sac State and freshman Stephanie Cherry had 10.

Weber also squeezed out a 58-56 win at Northern Arizona. NAU center Alyssa Wahl was fouled on a tying shot attempt, but the officials ruled that the final buzzer sounded before the ball left her hands.

Reporter Rial Cummings can be reached at 523-5255 or rcummings@missoulian.com.

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