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Emma Stockholm

Montana's Emma Stockholm puts up a shot against Southern Utah on Monday at Dahlberg Arena. The junior scored a career high 20 points, hitting 2 of 4 shots from 3-point range and 8 of 12 overall. A difference-maker on both ends of the floor, Stockholm will lead her team into action at Sacramento State Thursday.

MISSOULA — Emma Stockholm spends her summers in Missoula — and it has nothing to do with sweet floating conditions on the Clark Fork River.

The central Washington native is determined to be more than just a bit player for the Montana women's basketball team. She wants to be a catalyst.

Long summer hours spent in the gym are beginning top pay off handsomely. The junior forward has elevated every part of her game and it's one big reason the Lady Griz will take a 2-0 Big Sky Conference record into tonight's showdown at Sacramento State.

"She has committed herself to getting better, so it's great — you always want to see those kids rewarded after they work hard," Montana coach Shannon Schweyen said of Stockholm, who ranks second on her team in scoring (11.1 ppg.) and rebounds (6.3 rpg.)

"It's great to see her shooting well, rebounding well and defending well."

Stockholm enjoyed a breakout game on New Year's Eve, scoring a career-high 20 points on 8-for-12 shooting in a win over Southern Utah. Her size (6-foot-2) and effectiveness from 3-point range make her a match-up nightmare, though it's her defensive strides that really have her excited lately.

"I'm getting to spots, like the last game I finally took my three charges, which was awesome," she said of Saturday's win over Northern Arizona. "(Coach) Shannon harping on me every day in practice really got me to thinking about it.

"Defense is definitely an attitude. Everyone can do it. They harp on you and finally you just say, all right, I need to get it done."

Thursday represents a different sort of challenge for Stockholm and the Lady Griz (7-4). They've lost five times in a row in the Hornets' high-school-sized gym called The Nest. That includes double-digit setbacks the last two seasons.

Sac State (4-5) specializes in free-for-all basketball. The Hornets typically apply full-court pressure for 40 minutes and dare you to keep up with their prolific shooters.

They stumbled in their league opener last week at Northern Colorado, failing to score a single point in the first period en route to an 82-69 loss. They'll have extra incentive against the Lady Griz.

"I'm looking forward to it," Stockholm said. "They're very scrappy and super quick but I'm not too worried. I think we can compete with anyone in this league."

That seems to be the general consensus among Montana players and coaches. With a wealth of depth inside and outside, Schweyen has options when things aren't going well. That could prove especially helpful against a Sac State team that prides itself on wearing down the opposition.

"The challenge is getting up and down the floor and being in shape and not taking possessions off," Montana guard Taylor Goligoski said. "If you rest for a second they're right there to take the ball from you or push it right past you. You have to be on your toes."

Schweyen says it's hard to prepare for the uptempo Hornets. It may help that Montana faced a lot of full-court press on Saturday against Northern Arizona.

"And it's so nice to feel like you can keep them fresh going in and out," Schweyen said of her team's depth, especially at the guard position.

"We shouldn't be making a lot of tired mistakes. Then Sam (Fatkin) gives us a lot of length on the perimeter. She's still getting comfortable with our system and she'll get better and better."

This week's two-game road swing will give Lady Griz fans an idea of just how good their veteran-laden team is this season.

It's one thing to beat Northern Arizona and Southern Utah at home. It's a whole different challenge trying to win at Sacramento State, a place that Montana couldn't even get in done in 2012-13 when it earned a spot in the NCAA tourney under former head coach Robin Selvig.

Sac State leads the Big Sky in scoring at 78 points per game and steals with an average of 11.3 per contest. But Stockholm and the Lady Griz may find comfort in knowing they lead the Big Sky in field goal percentage (44.2) and rank second in the league in field goal percentage defense (38.0).

Montana has also thrived with unselfish play. In two league games the team has piled up 34 assists.

"We just all play together," Stockholm said.

Notes: Montana is making people take notice, not only with its current three-game win streak but with its 7-4 record while playing a challenging schedule. The Lady Griz have a healthy RPI of 81, four spots ahead of 11-1 Arizona, which defeated Montana last month. Six of the teams Montana has played —Gonzaga (13-1), South Dakota (13-2), Northern Illinois (8-4), UC Davis (8-5), Arizona (11-1) and Washington (7-6) — all have winning records. That body of work has ESPN listing Montana in its projected NCAA Tournament field this week, as a No. 13 seed facing No. 4 Michigan State in East Lansing. Again, it means nothing, not with 72 days to go until the Big Sky Conference tournament championship game, but it’s confirmation that Montana is on its way back to relevancy.

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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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