BOZEMAN — The defending Big Sky Conference champions spent Christmas Day on the basketball court working to improve from what was an inconsistent and tangled performance during the nonconference portion of its schedule.
It was the first time in coach Tricia Binford’s 13-year tenure that Montana State’s women practiced on Dec. 25, but with league play starting Thursday, there was no time for holiday rest.
For Binford and the Bobcats, it paid off.
“We had one of our best practices of the year on Christmas,” said Binford, whose squad went 6-5 in the preseason. “I love how we approached that day, how we responded transitioning into a new season — and trying to take away what we learned from the preseason about ourselves.”
The Bobcats won both the Big Sky’s regular season and tournament titles last season and advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time in 24 years. But without the likes of graduated stars Peyton Ferris and Riley Nordgaard, MSU has worked to mix and match veterans like Hannah Caudill, Delaney Junkermier and Oliana Squires with new players such as freshmen Laura Pranger, Ashley Van Sickle and Tori Martell.
The process has proven gradual.
The Bobcats have also implemented a new offense in an effort to find more perimeter scoring all while working to keep a balance of inside/outside production.
One obvious area in which MSU needs to improve is ball protection: The Bobcats have accumulated 181 turnovers in 11 contests, an average of more than 16 per game.
In their Big Sky opener Thursday against Southern Utah (1-10), MSU knows it can’t fall into that turnover trap. The Thunderbirds lead the league and rank in the top 15 in Division I with an average of 12.4 steals per game.
“It’s going to be a huge challenge because we haven’t done a great job of taking care of the basketball,” Binford said. “We need to be disciplined with our decisions and keep the game simple for ourselves against their pressure, because if we do a good job of taking care of the basketball I think we have an opportunity to get some really good looks.
“I like the fact that we’re getting tested right off the bat, because that’s an area we need to get better at.”
The Bobcats will look to protect their home court this weekend in the same manner they’ve done over the course of the past 2½ seasons. MSU’s 29-game home winning streak is the second-longest active streak in Division I (trailing UConn). It hasn’t lost a game at Worthington Arena since a 62-49 loss to San Diego on Nov. 24, 2015.
But Binford said the Bobcats aren’t concerned with the streak. Nor are they focusing on their title defense as much as they are remaining focused on the here and now.
“Where we’re at as a program and where we’ve always been successful is just trying to stay in the present,” Binford said. “For us right now we’re treating this as a brand new year. It’s 0-0. The biggest game on our schedule is Southern Utah.
“If we’re going to do a good job of helping this team grow and get better consistently we need to do a good job of keeping them in the present. And I feel like we’ve done that this week. I think the team has had a really productive week.”
Remember the last time Montana State’s men faced Southern Utah? It was a distressing outcome for the Bobcats — a 109-105 loss in triple overtime in the first round of the Big Sky tournament in Reno, Nevada, last March.
The main thorn in MSU’s side that night was Randy Onwuasor, who scored 43 points (while making 20 of 25 free throws). But Onwuasor has since transferred to LSU, and Southern Utah has proven to be more balanced this year.
A trio of transfers are the catalysts for the Thunderbirds (6-5). Jadon Cohee, Brandon Better and Jamal Aytes combine to score 41.6 points a night, which is a little more than half of SUU’s per-game total. As a team, the T-birds make just under nine 3-pointers per game.
“They really shoot the ball well,” MSU coach Brian Fish said in an athletic department release. “They have a lot of players shooting with confidence.”
Despite missing one game due to injury, being held scoreless in another and making just 2 of 19 shots versus Omaha in the Bobcats’ final nonconference game, MSU’s Tyler Hall still leads the Big Sky with 42 3-point makes and averages 17.3 points per game.
But Hall is battling through perhaps the toughest stretch of his career, marked by his right ankle ailment that took weeks to heal. Hall shot just 29 percent from the floor in his previous five games.
Montana State’s men (7-6) travel to play Northern Arizona on Saturday, while its women are home against NAU — which is coached by former Havre and University of Washington standout Loree Payne.