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Lady Griz beats Sac State-2

Sophomore McKenzie Johnston of Helena leads the Montana women's basketball team in scoring, assists and steals. Her Lady Griz will open Big Sky Conference tourney play with a 12:05 p.m. game Monday against Sacramento State in Reno, Nevada.

RENO, Nev. — Both have stumbled into the Big Sky Conference women's basketball tournament, each with serious cause for concern.

Montana has taken its lumps physically and mentally lately in losing six of its last seven games, including two last week without injured post Jace Henderson. Sacramento State was throttled at Northern Colorado in its regular-season finale Friday after spotting the Bears a 17-point halftime advantage.

When the Lady Griz and Hornets clash in the first round of the Big Sky tourney Monday at 1 p.m. at the Reno Events Center, there won't be much of a crowd to pump up the players. Shooting and defense will be critical as usual, but this game will be as much about determination — as in which team has more tigress left in the tank after a disappointing regular season.

"The hardest thing for us is we're used to playing with a crowd when we're at Dahlberg, so we have to bring our own energy," said Montana's floor leader, point guard McKenzie Johnston.

"Sac State is up-tempo so we have to be ready for a track meet. They get a lot of shots up, so we have to be able to contain them and slow the game down to our pace. We're looking forward to it."

Henderson's ankle is still sore and she'll be a game-time decision for Montana coach Shannon Schweyen. Without the junior from Billings, who leads the Lady Griz in rebounds and blocked shots, UM was vulnerable defensively at Weber State and Idaho State last week.

Montana's brightest ray of sunshine this season came nine days ago when it whipped Montana State in Missoula. The team shot 54.5 percent and stifled the Cats with a 2-3 zone defense.

The Lady Griz need to recapture that magic if they hope to extend their stay in Reno. The team cannot afford a repeat of Friday when starters Taylor Goligoski, Madi Schoening and Mekayla Isaak were held to a combined nine points in a 72-60 loss at Idaho State. 

"I wish we had a little more depth obviously, but we don’t,” said Schweyen, who has lost three starters to injuries dating back to October.

“But when this team is shooting the ball well and playing well, we’ve got a chance. So why not us?"

Reno has not been kind to Montana and Sacramento State. Both are 1-2 over the course of the last two league tournaments, with losses in the quarterfinals in 2016 and in the first round last March.

Are the bright lights and casinos a distraction? Are the rims tighter or looser than the Hornets and Lady Griz prefer?

"My one time playing in there I felt like we didn’t play like ourselves," said Schoening, whose team shot a dismal 27.6 percent in last year's first-round loss to Idaho State.

Monday's game is a tough matchup for Montana because the run-and-gun Hornets are deeper at the guard position. Four weeks ago when the Lady Griz lost a 79-64 decision at Sac State, they turned the ball over 17 times.

The cat-quick Hornets are also more explosive offensively, averaging roughly nine more points per game than the Lady Griz. Guards Hannah Friend and Maranne Johnson both average more than 16 points per game for Sac State, while Montana is more reliant on a group effort, with Johnston averaging a team-high 11.6 points per game.

Yet in spite of the Hornets' dangerous shooters, they lost to the Lady Griz in Missoula back on Jan. 11. Montana led from start to finish thanks to a 25-8 surge in the first quarter.

"It's just unbelievable the way this league has been this season," Schweyen said. "It's going to make for an unbelievable tournament.

"It literally could be anybody's tournament. The conference has been incredibly competitive and it's been an absolute guess every night to try to pick who's going to pick up a win away from home."

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