There's plenty up for grabs for the Montana women's basketball team on the final day of its regular season Saturday.
The Lady Griz can secure the No. 2 seed and a first-round bye in next week's Big Sky Conference tournament in Cheney, Wash. For that to happen, they need Portland State to lose Saturday afternoon at Eastern Washington and they need a win against Northern Colorado Saturday night in Greeley, Colo.
It won't be easy. The Bears, who edged Montana State on Thursday, 70-68, will be celebrating senior night and would love to post an historic first win over UM in their final game.
"It's been a goal of ours to beat Montana and end our year on a positive note," Northern Colorado coach Jaime White said.
The Lady Griz (9-6 conference, 14-13 overall) outlasted the Bears (6-9, 14-6) in their first meeting in Missoula on Jan. 29, 65-54. Sarah Ena scored a career-high 21 points to lead UM.
Since then Northern Colorado has posted some impressive results. Besides Thursday's win, they completed a season sweep of Portland State and last weekend pushed Sac State to the limit before bowing out, 93-89.
Foremost on Montana's mind will be stopping senior guard Whitley Cox. She ranks third in the conference in scoring at 18.5 points per game.
"She's the one that's scary," Montana coach Robin Selvig said. "She didn't have a big night Thursday but in a lot of their wins she jumps up and has a big night.
"She's a key for us just to not let her have one of those big nights. But they're certainly not a one-man team. And they're good defensively. They get after you so we need to play strong, play composed."
The good news for the Lady Griz is it appears senior guard Lauren Beck has saved some of her best basketball for last. Her surge of 11 points in the second half Thursday was critical to Montana's win at Northern Arizona.
"I thought Lauren struggled the first half," Selvig said. "But you expect a senior, a really good player, to come out of it. She did in a big way."
Another key for the Lady Griz was a switch to man defense in the second half. It limited the Lumberjacks' open looks from 3-point range and led to a more aggressive approach by Montana.
"We just wanted a change," Selvig explained. "I thought (Northern Arizona) was getting comfortable.
"We played a lot of man and it was our best defense, certainly the second half."
The Bears have had trouble putting points on the board in league competition. They rank last in the conference in scoring (61.5 ppg) and shooting consistency (39.4 percent).
But four Bears scored in double figures against Montana State on Thursday. Courtney Stoermer led the way with 16 points, followed by Cox with 14 points, Lauren Oosdyke 12 and junior reserve Jayne Strand 11.
One plus for Montana is it will take the floor at close to 100 percent against the Bears. Beck has been dealing with a sore back, but it loosened up in the second half Thursday. Montana junior forward Jessa Loman Linford took a hit in the face late in Thursday's game, and although she woke up Friday with a headache and sore nose, she will be ready for Northern Colorado.
The Bears will honor two seniors before Saturday's game. They are Cox and fellow backcourt starter Lizzie Cooper.
If Montana earns the No. 2 seed for the Big Sky tournament, it will play its next game on Friday in the tourney semifinals. If it doesn't, it will play Thursday and will be forced to win three games in three days to earn an NCAA berth.
Notes: Sac State had the inside track to earn the No. 2 seed for the Big Sky tourney until it lost at Idaho State on Friday. Now the best the Hornets can do is the No. 3 seed. ... Montana shot a season-high 50 percent at NAU Thursday and has shot better than 40 percent in its last six games. ... UM freshman guard Kenzie De Boer has averaged over 15 points per game in the last three games. ... Beck has scored in double figures in seven of the last eight games. ... UNC joined the Big Sky Conference in 2006 and all three of its losses to UM in Greeley have been by double figures.
Sports writer Bill Speltz can be reached at 523-5255 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.