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Lady Griz league opener

Junior point guard McKenzie Johnston (32) will lead the Montana women's basketball team into its Big Sky Conference home opener against Northern Arizona on Saturday at 2 p.m. Johnston, who averages a team-high 11.2 points per game, is shown pushing the ball up the floor while teammate Taylor Goligoski follows during a Dec. 1 game at Dahlberg Arena.

MISSOULA — Rarely does a holiday break carry with it so much intrigue for the Montana women's basketball team.

The excitement and anticipation have spiked since a pair of electric guards made their debut in an exhibition win nine days ago. Third-year coach Shannon Schweyen now appears to have enough pieces in place for a breakout Big Sky Conference season.

You can hear it in her voice, although she's still not ready to divulge important details about her team's league debut. Those will come Saturday when the Lady Griz battle Northern Arizona at 2 p.m. at Dahlberg Arena.

Schweyen is well aware that a lot of folks, including the Lumberjacks, want to know the status of guards Sammy Fatkin and Sophia Stiles. Fatkin was just recently cleared to play by the NCAA and Stiles is on the comeback trail after knee surgery last winter.

Both sophomores turned in sparkling performances against Montana Tech on Dec. 20 — Fatkin with her passing and court awareness and Stiles with her rare quickness. The question is, which one of these game-changers is going to see the floor in her first official contest Saturday?

The smart money is on Fatkin, a former Arizona Wildcat. She has all the knowledge and skills to give Montana something it hasn't had in a while, a strong backup for starting point guard McKenzie Johnston, who averages almost 35 minutes per game.

That's five minutes more than any of her teammates.

"For sure one of them is going to come off redshirt," Schweyen said. "We desperately need some depth there at the guard, just in case of things going awry.

"Kenzie (Johnston) has been playing 40 minutes a lot and I think it will be better for her to get some breaks. And it's always nice to have more play-makers on the floor. Come game time we'll have to make that decision."

Adding Fatkin or Stiles to the mix changes more than you might think. Beyond their experience and scoring potential, it opens the door for Montana to play more aggressively on defense.

"We've been so scared to do too much to where we might put any of our perimeter kids in foul trouble with the lack of depth," Schweyen said.

"Just having one more kid who can run things for us and operate the offense and give us some good defense on the perimeter is much needed. There's a lot of talented guards in the league."

Montana takes a 5-4 record into league play, which has it in a three-way tie for second in the Big Sky with Idaho State and defending champion Northern Colorado. Considering the Lady Griz played the nation's 30th-toughest schedule (as of Dec. 23), it's certainly something to feel good about.

Not since 2015-16 has Montana entered Big Sky play with a winning record. Key to the team's success has been shooting consistency. The Lady Griz rank second in the league at 43.1 percent — impressive considering they were the eighth best shooting team in the Big Sky last winter.

"When we were younger and more immature, you just kind of huck it up there and not really know how to decide what is a good shot," said redshirt sophomore Gabi Harrington, who has become a spark plug in a starting role for Montana.

"Now, since we've practiced and been together for so long, we understand how to take smarter shots, pass it up if it's not open, see the floor."

It certainly helps that starters Johnston, Harrington, Jace Henderson, Taylor Goligoski and Emma Stockholm have been working together for a long time.

"It was funny the other day at practice, I looked at Kenzie and something just kind of clicked all of a sudden," related Henderson, a senior post who leads the Lady Griz in rebounds with 59.

"You know it's three years of playing together. And that's with a lot of the girls, not just Kenzie and I. We've played together enough that we know what's good for us."

Schweyen credits her team with being "very attentive" in practice, determined to make strides offensively that will enable it to stay with high-scoring teams like Sacramento State, Portland State and Northern Colorado.

"They're buying into the fact that we need to be patient and really work for good ones and just not take the first one that comes along," the coach said. "A lot of these girls are beginning to understand what we're looking for out of the plays. Everybody is fired up to get started."

Ask the Lady Griz who they consider the team to beat in the Big Sky and you'll get a variety of answers. Schweyen likes Portland State (8-1) and Idaho (3-6). Harrington is sticking with the teams that got it done last season — at least for now.

"The two teams to beat I think are Northern Colorado and Idaho for sure," Harrington said of last season's Big Sky tourney finalists. "They are the highest teams from last year."

Schweyen is impressed with what the Vikings have accomplished defensively.

"We've had some interesting statistical category leaders, with Portland State leading the nation in field goal percentage defense for a while," she said.

"Obviously with their zone they're so big and long they're hard to score on. They tend to hold people down. We'll get them right away at their place in their new gym (next Saturday), so it will be interesting to see how hard they are to score on."

Northern Arizona, Montana's foe on Saturday, has been an enigma. The Jacks (4-5) won four of their first five before dropping four in a row.

Coached by Havre native Loree Payne, Northern Arizona's top player is 5-foot-8 senior forward Kaleigh Paplow. She averages almost 16 points per game and scored a double-double in a blowout loss at Arizona last week.

"They also have been getting good guard play out of a new freshman (Regan Schenk) and then a good surrounding cast that's been there a while," Schweyen noted. "They had some big wins early (over Fresno State and Loyola Marymount) and then had a tough schedule."

Schweyen stressed the importance of winning home conference games. Defending league champion Northern Colorado was 8-1 in Big Sky home games last winter.

"That has been what has set apart the people that have gone on to win the league is they won most their games at home and then sneak some out on the road," Schweyen said. "We take a lot of pride playing here (at Dahlberg)."

The Lady Griz should be a fun team to watch with improved play from their veterans and the infusion of new talent. True freshman guard Katie Mayhue has cracked the starting lineup six times and she has a message for UM fans:

"We're ready to shock the world, that's for sure," she offered. "We're ready to come out guns a-blazin'."

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Bill Speltz is the Deputy Sports Editor of the Missoulian. Email him at bill.speltz@406mtsports.com.

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