MISSOULA — Gone are the "Splash Sisters" that made the Idaho women's basketball team incredibly hard to stop the past several years.
But the Vandals have found a new way to give opponents fits in the absence of long-range sharpshooters Mikayla Ferenz and Taylor Pierce, who just this week signed with a pro team in Ringwood, Australia.
Idaho is leaning on its defense to get things done this season. The Vandals lead the Big Sky Conference in fewest points allowed per game (59.5) and Montana will be tasked with solving the puzzle Saturday in an important league tussle at 3 p.m. in Moscow, Idaho.
Idaho (4-1 conference, 9-5 overall) and Montana (4-2, 9-6) sit in second and third place, respectively, in the league standings. A win would be big for Montana with a four-game home stint starting next week.
"To squeak out any road win is huge in this league," Montana coach Shannon Schweyen said. "It's looking like it's shaping up to be another crazy year."
That Vandals have been perfect at home this season with a 5-0 record. But they have shown some vulnerability, escaping with a 69-60 win over visiting Eastern Washington on Thursday.
That's the same Eagles team Montana beat by 38 points last week in Missoula.
"They like to spread you out and beat you off the dribble a lot. A lot of penetrate-kick, a lot of close-out," Schweyen noted. "That's going to be key, how well we can stop it.
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"We've got to shoot the ball better. Our (forwards) have been so good in our previous games and they got tons of good shots in the paint at Portland State that didn't go (in Monday's 78-65 loss). Some of those were due to the 6-foot-5 girl, Jordan Stotler, changing those. Some of them weren't. We've got to score those to have a chance to be in games."
The Lady Griz shot 28 percent against the Vikings. It marked their worst performance since November when they hit just 13 of 53 attempts in a home loss to 21st-ranked Arizona.
While Idaho lost its best shooters from last season to graduation, it returned a lot of experience. Sophomore point guard Gina Marxen leads the team at 13.9 points per game and her effectiveness from the perimeter has helped set things up for 6-1 freshman post Beyonce Bea, a Washington native who was recruited by Montana and is currently averaging 13 points per game.
"Then of course both Klinker sisters are a huge part of what they've done," Schweyen said of senior guard Lizzy Klinker and junior forward Natalie Klinker, both of Fairfield.
Idaho's best Big Sky win to-date came last week when it outlasted conference leader Montana State (5-1, 9-6) in a double-overtime thriller in Bozeman. Bea collected a game-high 26 points on 10-for-16 shooting from the field.
Montana' first priority Saturday will be starting faster than it did in Portland. The Lady Griz missed nine of their first 10 shots and trailed all the way.
"We did crawl our way back into it," Schweyen noted. "I felt like we were making a run there with 2 minutes to go when we cut it to four twice. I thought, 'Here we come.'
"We had plenty of opportunities to get it done and we had some untimely turnovers again on passes. Down 17 anymore, it's totally possible for us to get back in the game, which we have. But it would certainly help if we got off to a good start. It makes life easier."
Notes: Idaho has beaten Montana in five of their last six meetings. They split last season ... Although Montana State leads the Big Sky, the Cats are tied with the second-place Vandals in the loss column and the Vandals hold a tiebreaker edge since they beat MSU last week ... Schweyen is 1-4 in head-to-head matchups with Idaho veteran coach Jon Newlee ... Montana guard McKenzie Johnston sits 18th on the Montana career scoring list with 1,191 points. She is five behind Cheri Bratt (1980-84) and 15 behind Kayleigh Valley (2013-16).
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.