Lady Griz vs. N MSU 19

Montana freshman phenom Jamie Pickens (42) missed Sunday's home game against Arizona with a concussion, but she will be back for Friday's game against Santa Clara in Fullerton, California. In this photo, Pickens is shown battling for a rebound against MSU Northern's Sydney Hovde (33) and Peyton Kehr (far right).

MISSOULA — The plan was to visit Disneyland or the beach prior to playing two games in the Titan Classic in Fullerton, California.

Bad weather spoiled the side trips. But the Montana women's basketball team will try to make up for it by posting a couple wins against tough competition Friday and Saturday.

Friday's 4:30 p.m. test against Santa Clara looks especially challenging. The Broncos (3-2) have won all three of their games in California and gave 24th-ranked Arizona a tough battle on Nov. 8 before falling in front of 4,225 fans in Tucson, Arizona, 65-52.

That's the same unbeaten Arizona team that handled Montana (2-2) at Dahlberg Arena on Sunday, 77-42.

"I'm excited about the opportunity to play Santa Clara because I think they are a really smart team," said Lady Griz coach Shannon Schweyen, whose squad will also play the host team, Cal State Fullerton, in the Titan Classic on Saturday.

"They're very balanced with an experienced point guard that's a really good player. They run a lot of stuff that's hard to guard in the fact that all of them can shoot it. Just really good, disciplined basketball players, so it will be a tough one."

Santa Clara did show some vulnerability last Saturday in dropping a 71-64 verdict against Missouri State in Springfield, Missouri. But Missouri State (6-1) is a powerhouse, with wins over South Dakota, Oklahoma and Boise State to its credit.

Slowed by the injury bug, Montana is still trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Junior forward Madi Schoening (back) was supposed to be a starter but has barely seen the floor. Freshman phenom Jamie Pickens will be back Friday after missing Sunday's game with a concussion and junior catalyst Sophia Stiles is slowly but surely sharpening her game after missing a year with a knee injury.

Is the tough competition good or bad for Montana right now? Only time will tell, with the team slated to make its Big Sky Conference debut at Northern Arizona on Dec. 28.

"You want to be improving and having things exposed that you need to get better at, but at the same time you still want to be building confidence and team chemistry," Schweyen said.

"Winning always helps in those areas. But I think you're better off playing a tough schedule and losing some of those than whipping up on some people and not learning anything."

Montana will need to improve on its shooting if it hopes to win this weekend. The Lady Griz hit 13 of 53 shots against Arizona.

Whether the shots are falling or not, Schweyen wants to see her squad take another step forward defensively. The Lady Griz were good at times playing zone defense against Arizona.

"Both these teams we'll see play quite of bit of zone as well, so we could see a lot of it over the weekend," Schweyen noted. "For us, I feel confident when we're looking at guarding people that we have about seven kids right now that are pretty darn good in that zone."

Montana was 3-11 in road games and 10-4 at home last winter. In order to improve on its away mark this season, Lady Griz senior guard McKenzie Johnston says her team must play with purpose from the opening tip.

"We need to bring our own energy," Johnston said. "We have a great (home) crowd that keeps showing up for us. Now we're going to have to get used to bringing it ourselves. That's the most important thing going into road games."

Notes: Four Santa Clara players average in double figures scoring. Point guard Tia Hay leads the way at 12.0 ppg. Hay was named to the all-West Coast Conference preseason first team ... Santa Clara actually led Arizona, 46-43, after three quarters in their game on Nov. 8. That was before the Wildcats finished with a 22-8 run ... Cal State Fullerton (4-2) won at Grand Canyon last Sunday, 80-70. Titans point guard Raina Perez leads the country field goals made (56) and is in the top 10 in the nation in scoring (22.3 ppg.) ... Saturday's game will start at 6 p.m. Mountain time.

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Bill Speltz is Missoulian Sports Editor and has served as Sunday columnist the past 13 years. Do you have a story idea? Email Bill at bill.speltz@missoulian.com.

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