They’ve been the best in the Big Sky Conference so far, winning three cliffhangers en route to a sparkling 5-0 start.
But there’s a storm approaching for the North Dakota women. If they are to follow through and earn basketball bragging rights in the Big Sky, they’ve got to find a way to solve the puzzle that is the Montana Lady Griz.
The Maroon & Silver have had NoDak’s number in their last four meetings, including two last season. The Green and White will try to reverse the trend when they play host to the defending league champs at 6:05 p.m. MST Thursday in Grand Forks, N.D.
North Dakota (10-4 overall) has beaten Montana (3-1, 9-4) only once, that coming back in the 1984-85 season. But the team without a nickname appears to be on a mission this winter.
“With this team, watching them practice and play, there’s a no-quit type of attitude,” NoDak coach Travis Brewster said. “They’re a stubborn team, and that’s what you need to be successful.”
Lady Griz coach Robin Selvig knows his squad will need to bring its A game to the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center.
“The stats that really stand out to me for North Dakota are they’re out-rebounding their opponents badly – and they’ve played a good schedule – and they also have gone to the free-throw line almost double what their opponents have,” Selvig said. “That means they’re taking it to the hole. That means they’re good offensive rebounders. An important thing there is going to be to keep them off the line.”
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Two players in particular merit Montana’s undivided attention. They are forwards Madi Buck and Mia Loyd. Both stand about 6 feet tall but play bigger. Loyd has five double-doubles and Buck four this season for a team that has won three league games by three points or less.
The Lady Griz defense has been the best in the Big Sky, allowing about 62 points per game. But it will be tested by Buck, Loyd and UND centers Allyssa Wall and Emily Evers, who both stand about 6-5.
“Madi Buck has shot 86 free throws this year,” noted Selvig. “I think Jordy (Sullivan) has shot the most for us, which is 35.
“That tells you what kind of player (Buck) is. She puts her head down and goes. She can go right and left. She can shoot it on the perimeter, too. That’s not what she wants to do first. But we’ve played against her for a couple years now. She’s hard to close out.”
As a team, UND has shot 365 free throws to Montana’s 159.
“They’ll take some tough driving shots in a crowd,” Selvig said. “You’ve got to not only not foul them, you have to show the officials you’re not fouling because they create fouls.”
If Montana continues to shoot the way it has the past four games, NoDak may be in for a long night. The Lady Griz are averaging 85.5 points and hitting 52.1 percent of their attempts in league action. For the first time in seven years, they’ve broken the 80-point barrier four straight times.
Junior guard Kellie Cole and senior forward Jordy Sullivan have been especially good in January. Cole, the reigning Big Sky Player of the Week, has averaged close to 23 points per game. Sullivan has averaged 19 and almost eight rebounds.
“Basically for the weekend we shot the ball well, we passed the ball well and we were pretty good defensively,” said Selvig, whose squad is coming off a 36-point win over Portland State in which it shot 52.1 percent. “It sure is an easier game when the ball is going in.
“... We can’t count on shooting it that well every night. That’s why there’s so many other important parts to the game for us like rebounding and playing defense. Believe me, we have lots of room to improve. I think the ladies know that.”
One reason for Montana’s league success is the steady improvement of 6-2 post Carly Selvig. She leads the Big Sky in blocks, averaging 2.5 per game, and is shooting 52 percent from the floor in conference games.
“I feel a lot more strong than in the past,” the Glendive native said. “That brings a load of confidence, being strong and being able to stay with it on offense, getting those looks.
“But I’m definitely not going away from passing because that’s still one of my favorite things to do in the game.”
Carly Selvig is looking forward to the challenge of facing NoDak on its home floor, where it has averaged 1,434 fans in league play. That’s second only to Montana with its average of 3,062.
“It just gets me really excited to go over there,” she said, “to kind of prove to our conference that just because we lost to Sac State, that doesn’t mean we’re out of it.”
Montana’s two-game road swing will continue Saturday when it plays at Northern Colorado in a rematch of last season’s Big Sky tourney final.
QUICK SHOTS: Lady Griz reserve guard Hannah Doran suffered a concussion in Saturday’s game and is not travelling this week ... UND leads the Big Sky in rebound margin (+15.6) and UM is second (+10.5) ... NoDak has 89 blocks, which is tops among Big Sky teams ... NoDak ranks dead last in the league in turnover margin at -4. Montana is at +1 ... Picked to finish eighth in the Big Sky preseason coaches’ poll, UND has won seven of its last eight games, with its only loss coming on Dec. 28 at Iowa ... NoDak is 6-0 at home this season.
Reporter Bill Speltz can be reached at 523-5255 or firstname.lastname@example.org.