MISSOULA — The Montana women's basketball team finally got a chance to take its home court for an official game on Monday against North Dakota.
While joyous in celebration after the victory over the Fighting Hawks in a crowd-less Dahlberg Arena, there was also a sense of relief for the Lady Griz. As soon as the ball was tipped, the game was under way without any complications, a scenario that is becoming more and more challenging to come to fruition with each passing day.
Not even a month has passed since the NCAA Division I college basketball season began, and already the cancellations due to COVID-19 in the men's and women's ranks are piling up at an alarming rate. Just over the weekend, the men's game between No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 Baylor was canceled due to positive cases.
Locally, the Lady Griz know this experience first-hand. Last week their first two home games and Big Sky Conference contests against Southern Utah were canceled, leaving both schools without a pair of games on the schedule.
So even though Montana and North Dakota were able to take the court on Monday in Missoula, it served as a sobering reminder of just how fluid the 2020-21 season is going to be.
"We were obviously really bummed when Southern Utah got canceled," Montana sophomore forward Carmen Gfeller said. "It is definitely something you have to learn to adjust and go with the flow on and coach Mike (Petrino) has been really good about that. Just saying anything can change in a moment but we just have to change our mindset and be ready for the next one."
Those mental and emotional obstacles are now added onto the plates of athletes and coaches, along with everything else that comes with a normal basketball season. Griz men's coach Travis DeCuire expressed his concerns before the season started about how athletes will be affected mentally by constantly going through this roller coaster and uncertainty in a sport they've built their life around, and preparing for a game only to have it taken away is already becoming an all-too-familiar theme that comes with the season.
"I don’t think enough could be said about how mentally challenging this is for these student-athletes," Petrino said. "This is really hard. You know they obviously love playing and to practice, practice, practice, your season gets delayed, and then you start a game finally, and you’re looking forward to three games in a week.
"We had parents coming from all over town, and the night before we get canceled. It’s hard."
Normally the season starts with a scrimmage, followed by an exhibition game or two, then the non-conference slate and conference games around Christmas if not by the start of the New Year. Petrino noted how this year they got nothing ahead of their opener against Utah State, immediately followed by the conference matchups with Southern Utah that were canceled, and now back into non-conference games before resuming conference play on Jan. 2 and 4 at Northern Colorado.
So for a team like the Lady Griz where eight of the 15 players are new to the team this season, practice can only go so far, and in-game experience is invaluable as the team continues to gel together.
"This inexperienced group has 80 minutes now," said Petrino, alluding to the two games UM has played. "We have 80 minutes of experience, that’s all. So we have a lot of room to grow still. It is definitely challenging mentally on all teams across the country to think you’re going to play a game and then get one canceled. We just have to be ready on a moment’s notice, but it is definitely challenging."
But even without a crowd and little time on the court together, Montana still strung together an impressive performance in the win over North Dakota. Gfeller, who redshirted a year ago after earning rotation minutes as a true freshman in 2018-19, and fellow Lady Griz veterans Sophia Stiles, Madi Schoening and Abby Anderson all led UM in minutes, but transfer Hannah Thurmon earned a second consecutive start and knocked down three 3-pointers.
Off the bench, true freshmen Willa Albrecht and Kyndall Keller earned a good chunk of rotation minutes as did transfer Nyah Morris-Nelson and Jordyn Schweyen, who, like Gfeller, redshirted last year after playing true freshman minutes two seasons ago.
Petrino dug deep into his bench and felt like his players were ready to go on Monday given the circumstances surrounding the game.
"I think it's just proactively preaching the importance of practice, and our kids do a good job with their mindset," Petrino said. "We've definitely had more positive practices than negative ones so that's been good, and valuing the practice and making sure all of the reps are quality. It is challenging but so far they've done a really good job of it. We need everybody because you never know. You're one COVID test away from your roster being altered for a while, so everyone's got to be ready to go and locked in."
Going forward, it's all about staying flexible and ready, because at the drop of a hat this season, anything could change.
"I'm the first to admit that we're learning as we go, and so are we as a staff," Petrino said. "We're still tinkering with things and I told them, don't get caught up in the who's starting, who's finishing, and just be ready to go because you never know what's going to happen."