MISSOULA – You couldn’t script a better start to conference play for the Montana Grizzlies. After two blowout road wins, the guys return home with a chance for another statement. They take on the defending Big Sky Conference champions Thursday in Dahlberg Arena.
And the Grizzlies will tip off as heavy favorites against the suddenly struggling North Dakota Fighting Hawks. The program that won the league title and made it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time a year ago lost its conference-opening games at home last week to fall to 4-9 overall.
But UND did take nationally ranked Gonzaga to overtime just a few weeks ago, and Montana has plenty of respect for the defending champs.
“Depth I think has been an issue,” said UM head coach Travis DeCuire when asked about North Dakota’s struggles. “They’ve been streaky offensively shooting the ball. I think they’ve got some guys in new roles. A little bit like us last year, where you got some guys coming back with some expectations, so I think they are still trying to find their way. But they’re still talented and still dangerous.”
“They play very fast. Even on made baskets they get the ball out really quick,” said Montana point guard and leading scorer Ahmaad Rorie. “They have a good guard in Geno Crandall. They have another transfer (guard Marlon Stewart from Creighton) that’s pretty good. They’re well-coached, and they’re going to play hard no matter what, so it’s going to be a big test for us.”
Montana’s defense has impressed during its current run. The Griz held Southern Utah 33 points below its season average last Saturday. Meanwhile, North Dakota has struggled defensively, giving up more than 82 points per game.
The men tip off at 7 p.m. Thursday in Dahlberg Arena.
This is the last season North Dakota plays in the Big Sky before it moves on to the Summitt League. Most teams in the conference will be happy they don’t have to make the difficult trip anymore. It’s an expensive flight into Fargo, followed by an 80-mile bus trip to Grand Forks.
But even though it’s not easy to get there, the Lady Griz admit they’ll miss the games versus the Fighting Hawks. Not only has North Dakota continually suited up one of the better women’s teams in the league, they always rank near the top of the conference in attendance (third this year behind Montana and Montana State).
“I really enjoy playing at North Dakota,” said Lady Griz head coach Shannon Schweyen. “I think they have a great fan base. They always treat us wonderful. It’s a fun environment to play in, and I’ve always felt like our girls have played well there. They enjoy being out in front of the crowd.”
“Some of the schools in the Big Sky don’t get crowds like that,” said UM point guard and leading scorer McKenzie Johnston. “So playing in an environment like that helps us I think, because we’re so used to it here.”
“I mean, I’m not too upset seeing them leave,” added Johnston with a smile. “But we want to get a win for sure down there for the last time.”
The Lady Griz might enjoy the trip, but it hasn’t always turned out the way Montana would like. The Griz have lost four straight games in North Dakota and have not won a true road game since March of 2016.
Montana’s women started Big Sky play with two home wins, while UND lost a pair of road games. North Dakota might be favored, but UM has the current edge in the standings.
The Fighting Hawks and Lady Griz will tip off at 6 p.m. Thursday in Grand Forks.