Coach Robin Selvig sat in his office Thursday morning, watching the most recent game tape of his Lady Griz. He wasn't smiling.
"We had a couple of bad games," Selvig said in summing up losses at Colorado State (60-45) on Tuesday and Gonzaga (60-52) on Sunday. "Whatever the reason, we didn't play with the energy we needed at either place. And then we compounded things by shooting the ball poorly. But you can't dwell on it."
No, indeed. Montana (10-4), which had a five-game winning streak blunted by the two losses, jumps back in the fire Saturday night, closing its non-conference schedule at home against Utah (10-3).
Utah, the defending Mountain West Conference champion, is ranked No. 24 in the USA Today/ESPN coaches poll and features perhaps the best player UM has faced this season in sophomore All-America candidate Kim Smith. The 6-foot-1 forward from Mission, British Columbia, leads the Utes in scoring (16.7) and rebounding (6.8), and shoots 54 percent from the field - 49 percent beyond the 3-point arc.
"You just gotta hope she doesn't have a huge night," Selvig said. "She can score in so many ways. She's a 3-point threat, she can dribble past you, and she can post-up. No doubt, she's one of the best players in the country."
All five starters are back for the Utes, who went 24-7 last season and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Guard Shona Thorburn adds 13.2 points per game, while 6-2 Carley Marshall and 6-foot Mandie Little both shoot better than 50 percent from the field.
Montana split with Utah last winter, winning 53-49 in Missoula and losing 77-38 at Salt Lake City in one of the most lopsided losses of Selvig's distinguished 26-year tenure.
Utah coach Elaine Elliott, much like Selvig, has built a tradition of success by preaching defense. But the Utes can win an up-tempo game as well; they rallied for an 86-78 victory at Idaho State last Monday, erasing a Bengal lead with a 16-0 burst late in the second half. Smith (17 points, 13 rebounds) had her first double-double of the season, while Thorburn led six Utes in double figures with 18 points.
Montana, the Big Sky's best defensive team, is likely to hold its own at that end of the court. The question is whether the Lady Griz can generate enough offense. They've shot less than 40 percent from the field in four of their past five games. The 45 points at CSU was their lowest total this season.
"We've had some poor shooting halves this year, but we've usually followed a poor half with a good one," Selvig said. "That didn't happen in these losses."
Junior center Hollie Tyler, the Big Sky player of the week, leads UM in scoring (13.9), rebounding (8.3) and blocked shots (34). Senior forward Julie Deming adds 13.6 points, followed by sophomore guard Katie Edwards with a 10.0 scoring average.
A win would give Montana a nice boost heading into Big Sky Conference play. The Lady Griz open conference with a pair of critical road games at Idaho State on Thursday and two-time defending champ Weber State on Saturday.
Notes: Selvig and Elliott are among 20 active coaches with more than 400 victories at their current school. Selvig has guided UM to 14 NCAA appearances in 25 seasons, while Elliott has taken Utah to the NCAAs 11 times in 20 years. … Montana has limited opponents to 55.1 points and 36 percent shooting. Utah is holding foes to 56.4 points and 40 percent shooting. … Deming (.476) leads the Lady Griz in field-goal accuracy. Tyler (.443) and reserve Juliann Keller (.422) are the only other UM players shooting better than 40 percent.