BOZEMAN and MISSOULA -- With the disappointing news that the Montana men's basketball team will not be able to play in this year's Cat-Griz doubleheader due to COVID-19 within the program, fans will get half the games they were expecting as the women’s games are still a go.
Both teams have a lot to gain or a lot to lose. They both sit at 4-2 in Big Sky Conference play and, depending on how the rivalry plays out, one of these teams will still have a shot of possibly playing for the regular-season conference title.
Montana State swept the Lady Griz last year in the rivalry matchup on its way to becoming the Big Sky Conference champion. The Cats lost a lot of on-court veteran leadership such as Fallyn Freije and now MSU assistant Blaire Braxton to graduation, but after splitting their first two Big Sky Conference series, they swept Northern Arizona this past weekend and appear to be on the right track. However, they wouldn’t be where they are without star sophomore point guard Darian White.
White is averaging 14.5 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game while leading one of the youngest teams in the NCAA. As the season has gone on, the young team is starting to mesh.
“We’re able to rely on them more now and I think what (coach Tricia Binford) said earlier -- identity and our chemistry is coming together so it just makes us a better and deeper team, and I think that’s obviously is what takes us far, is just having more people that we can count on if somebody doesn’t have their game, somebody else can step up and I think that’s really vital,” White said.
Recently, a certain freshman out of Lady Griz Country has been shining in Lexi Deden from Missoula Sentinel High School.
Over her last three games, Deden has been averaged 15 points per game and her role has grown.
“Feed her the ball, because her turnaround is pretty unstoppable," said Bobcats head coach Tricia Binford. "She’s got a quick release and quick turnaround, I think she’s just getting really settled in, I think that’s the progression that you see week to week.”
The backbone of the team continues to be senior Tori Martell. The 3-point sniper is averaging 12 points per game and shooting almost 44 percent from 3-point land.
On the Lady Griz side of things, they've run their offense through their forwards and looked for points in the paint this season as they've struggled to find good 3-point attempts and makes.
In their most recent game against Sacramento State, Montana had its worst shooting performance from deep, finishing 1 for 17.
"Going into this year, it was a huge hole for us," said Montana head coach Mike Petrino. "We lost 85% of our 3-point scoring from last year. We worked on that all of last spring and of our 11 games, there have been two games where we've struggled. So, we've actually had better numbers, it was just one of those days and that happens. We still have to give our kids confidence and instill that in them."
Carmen Gfeller is currently leading Montana in scoring this season with 16.5 points per game. Abby Anderson has also been key again in 2021 with 12.2 points per game.
While the team has struggled from 3-point range, going 65 for 207 (31%) on the year, point guard Sophia Stiles has found soft spots in the defense as she's averaging 11.5 points and 3.1 assists per game.
On the defensive side, Anderson has continued to grow. The redshirt junior is averaging a Big Sky Conference-leading 2.3 blocks per game while Stiles is adding to that defense with 2.6 steals per game.
While the rivalry is still as strong as ever, it'll have a much different look and tempo with no fans in attendance.
"Obviously we prefer to have fans," said Petrino. "You can probably communicate more in an empty gym, but we still miss the fans because of that momentum that they bring. Even playing over there (at Bozeman) they always have a great crowd and it's a great atmosphere. Both places have a special fan base."
While fans won't be the ones attempting to distract the Lady Griz this time, they'll still have to get through one of the toughest defenses in the conference.
"Just doing what we do best," said Montana forward Maddie Schoening. "We have a really good inside-out game. I know our posts have been really strong, but we also have really good shooters that have the green light as well. I think taking care of the ball and limiting turnovers, those sort of things will be huge as well."
The Bobcats (4-2 in conference) and Lady Griz (4-2 in conference) will tip off from Brick Breeden Fieldhouse Thursday at 5 p.m. before playing the second game of the two-game series on Saturday in Missoula.