MISSOULA — If you look close enough, you can see subtle signs the Montana women's basketball team has improved since last season.
It's just hard to tell right now based on the level of competition. One day the Lady Griz are blowing out an over-matched NAIA team, four nights later they're overwhelmed by one of the top mid-major teams in the country.
So even though coach Shannon Schweyen saw a lot of positives from her young bench Saturday night, it was hard to feel too good after dropping a 64-41 decision to highly-touted South Dakota in front of 2,682 fans at Dahlberg Arena.
"Turnovers I felt were the big key tonight," said Schweyen, whose team finished with 20 to South Dakota's six. "They cause a lot but I thought a lot of those were unforced and impatience by us. We've got to take care of the ball better against a team like that."
The game was nip-and-tuck until the Coyotes, ranked No. 8 in the collegeinsider.com mid-major poll with a 5-1 record, switched to an aggressive man defense midway through the first quarter. The Lady Griz (1-2) closed out the period with seven turnovers in nine possessions and by halftime trailed by 21 points.
"That's usually what we pride ourselves on, being able to defend one-on-one," said South Dakota junior guard Ciara Duffy, who finished with a game-high 26 points. "It's something we've really been working on lately. We've been spending a lot of time focusing on our defensive intensity and awareness.
"This was a really good game for us because Montana is a really skilled, scrappy team."
Montana needed to bring it's A game to stay with the physically-superior Coyotes and in some ways the hosts were hexed before the game began. Starting junior guard Madi Schoening was held out for the second straight game with a foot injury and redshirt sophomore guard Gabi Harrington, typically Montana's first player off the bench, was also sidelined Saturday.
"One thing our lack of depth hurt us with Gabi having the flu," Schweyen said. "We have no perimeter subs right now with Madi (Schoening) out and Sophie (Stiles) out and (Harrington) having the flu. Gabi has been a good spark for us.
"Then (South Dakota) plays very physical. Their guards have size and they're strong, all of them are strong. They don't really ever let you take advantage of mismatches because they're so physical."
The good news for Montana is their prized freshman class seems to be coming along nicely. Forward Carmen Gfeller, who scored a game-high 15 points in Tuesday's win over Providence (Great Falls), finished with seven points on 3-for-4 shooting and five rebounds. Guard Katie Mayhue also scored seven points and Jordyn Schweyen collected four rebounds.
"I felt like we had some moments of some really good sequences, and when you have a bunch of freshmen on the floor, that's not always easy," coach Schweyen said. "Our freshmen did some good things defensively. We just didn't shoot the ball well overall."
Montana finished at 32.6 percent for the game (14 for 43). South Dakota wasn't much better at 38.5 percent, but it had more opportunities (25 for 65) because of Lady Griz turnovers. The Coyotes also did a better job working the ball inside, finishing with a 34-10 edge in points in the paint.
"We have some tough games ahead of us and we've got to take all these games as an experience to get better," coach Schweyen said. "We're finding out what our weaknesses are and then we need to get better at those. Every one of these games has to teach us something."
Notes: Jace Henderson paced Montana with 10 points, six of which came at the foul line ... McKenzie Johnston had a team-high seven rebounds and three assists for the Lady Griz ... The best shooting quarter for UM was the fourth quarter (5 for 10) when coach Schweyen gave her freshmen extended minutes ... Sentinel grad Kylie Frohlich and Ronan product Lee Camel have yet to play for Montana this season, apparently opting to redshirt.