MISSOULA – After winning the Lady Griz Classic over the weekend, Montana will take its talents south.
Fresh off the much-needed pair of victories, UM isn’t taking it easy and will take on Pac-12 foe Arizona at 11 a.m. Wednesday at McKale Center in Tucson.
The Wildcats are a tall task for the Lady Griz. Arizona currently sits at 6-1 and is riding a five-game winning streak. Redshirt sophomore guard Aari McDonald, who transferred to Arizona from the University of Washington, recently won her second Pac-12 player of the week honor and is second in the country in scoring, averaging 26.6 points per game.
“She’s quick and can shoot it and is just very complete,” Montana coach Shannon Schweyen said. “Nobody has really been able to hold her down all season. That’s going to be challenging.”
After wins over Northern Illinois and UC Davis at the Lady Griz Classic, Schweyen said Montana’s confidence is in a good spot, but the team must not dwell on those wins for too long as they get ready for this road test.
“It was certainly nice to get a couple of wins at home and get some momentum,” Schweyen said. “As soon as that was over with, (we) started getting ready for the next one and it’s nice when you go into a game feeling like you’ve been playing good basketball.
“We’re excited about that but we know every game is different and we have to prepare for every opponent differently and these guys have been on a bit of a roll themselves and they’re a pretty talented team. We’ve got a pretty good opportunity in front of us.”
Montana started the season 1-2 with losses at Gonzaga to open the season and a home fallout to South Dakota. But in the Lady Griz Classic, UM’s offense finally caught fire as it started fast and never looked back against the Huskies. The offense flowed smoothly and all five of Montana’s starters finished in double figures on Saturday.
Then in the final against UC Davis, Montana’s defense took center stage as it held the Aggies to 34.4 percent (22 of 64) from the floor and 25 percent (10 of 40) from 3-point range. Senior forward Jace Henderson was named tournament MVP for her efforts while junior guard McKenzie Johnston made the all-tourney team as UM improved to 3-2.
While McDonald could be a handful for the Lady Griz, they did just halt UC Davis post Morgan Bertsch. Bertsch scored 13 points against the Lady Griz, 10 points below her season average coming into the game.
But Schweyen praised McDonald as one of the best players they’ll see this season and they aren’t taking that challenge lightly.
“This gal’s extremely talented and very athletic. I don’t know if I’ve seen many players beat everyone down the floor the way she does,” Schweyen said. “She’ll rebound it and they’ll be three people ahead of her and she’ll beat everyone down for a layup. So that’s going to be a big key for us.”
With the team battling cold shooting and injuries to key players in junior Madi Schoening and sophomore Sophia Stiles, the weekend gave the team a breath of fresh air, and Schweyen saw a plethora of areas the team improved in.
“Our balance was huge in those two games to have a scoring balance like we did,” Schweyen said. “Our field goal percentage was a huge highlight and part of that was due to shot selection and the way the girls shared the ball.
“After playing South Dakota we did work a lot on moving and sharing the ball and I think some of that carried over into the weekend. It’s such a different basketball game when the ball goes in and a lot of those nights we’re taking the same shots and they just don’t go. Plus, I just thought they were really dialed in defensively.”
Going forward, keeping that energy and focus is something Schweyen wants to see more consistently. And in scheduling these games against tougher non-conference opponents against her more youthful squad, Schweyen said her younger players are picking things up well. After Wednesday's game, Montana heads to Phoenix to take on Grand Canyon University on Friday to compete its two-game trip to the desert.
“We have a lot of youth right now and these are learning experiences,” Schweyen said. “We’re playing good teams and we don’t want to get too down on ourselves. As long as we’re coming out of them with something every time and getting better, it’s going to be worthwhile in the end when we get to conference.”