MISSOULA — On the heels of playing challenging non-league schedules, the Montana men's and women's basketball teams begin Big Sky Conference play Thursday.
Montana's men host Eastern Washington at Dahlberg Arena while the Lady Griz face EWU on the road at Reese Court in Cheney, Wash. Both games tip off at 7 p.m. Mountain time.
UM's men went 6-6 during its nonconference schedule. The Griz played 11 Division I opponents, and their six losses came against with a combined .753 winning percentage.
The Grizzlies' most recent outing was an 85-75 defeat at No. 11 Gonzaga on Dec. 20 in Spokane, Wash., a game Montana led by 10 during the first half then trailed big in the second half only to whittle the deficit down to five points in the late stages.
"We are capable of playing at a very high level. We have good players," Griz coach Travis DeCuire stated in a UM press release. "I think we do have good enough depth off the bench whether it's defensive presence, offensive presence, hustle, things like that. I think we have a good enough team to compete for a championship. We just have to find ways to be more consistent and believe in and trust one another."
The Grizzlies enter Big Sky play led by Josh Bannan's 15.6 points-per-game average. Aanen Moody averages 14.9 per game while Brandon Whitney (12.8 ppg) and Dischon Thomas (12.3 ppg) are also in double figures.
Montana's women, meanwhile, went 4-7 during their non-league schedule. The Lady Griz challenged themselves against upper-echelon programs like Colorado State, Cal and Washington State.
Their most recent game was Dec. 21 at No. 22 Gonzaga, an 82-67 defeat. The Lady Griz trailed by six points at halftime before the Zags pulled away.
"As far as effort, our kids are starting to get it," coach Brian Holsinger stated in a UM release. "We have so many freshmen and sophomores playing out there and they are starting to understand what it takes."
The Lady Griz have four players averaging double-digit points — Sammy Fatkin (13.5 ppg), Libby Stump (10.9 ppg), Carmen Gfeller (10.8 ppg) and former Idaho standout Gina Marxen (10.4 ppg). Gfeller had a season-best 22 points against Gonzaga, and also pulled down eight rebounds.
After Thursday's games, the Montana teams will face Idaho on Saturday, New Year's Eve. UM's men host the Vandals at 2 p.m. and the women play on the road at 3 p.m. Mountain time.