MISSOULA — First place will be on the line when the Montana women's basketball team plays at Northern Colorado on Saturday afternoon.
The Lady Griz and Bears have identical 3-0 records in Big Sky Conference play. Northern Colorado was picked by the preseason pollsters to win the league, so its hold on first is no surprise.
Montana has been the surprise team in the first two weeks of conference play. It remains to be seen, however, if the Lady Griz are up to the task of containing a team as explosive as the Bears, who boast the best overall record among Big Sky teams at 11-3.
"They’ve had some impressive wins at DePaul, beating LSU," UM coach Shannon Schweyen said. "But then they’ve turned around and been kind of human in some other ones. Fordham in particular they scored in the 30s.
"They spread you out and beat you off the dribble a lot and they’ve got a center who is a good little scorer in there. But they go as their guards go and they pretty much play like a four-guard lineup."
Both teams are riding win streaks. Montana (7-7) has won its last four games and Northern Colorado its last five.
"They shoot a lot of threes," Schweyen said. "It’s interesting. You look at them and think, ‘Well we should be able to hurt them with size.’ Somehow they always seem to play more physical than you'd think.
"Savannah Scott and Savannah Smith are two of the better guards in the league. We're going to do what we do and we'll see what happens. It will be a good challenge for us."
The Bears are coming off an 82-69 win over Montana State. Smith scored a career-high 32 points, 15 coming in the fourth quarter, and 5-foot-9 Kianna Williams scored her second career double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds.
Offensively, the game looks like a mismatch. Northern Colorado ranks first in the Big Sky in field goal percentage (44.0) and Montana is next to last in the league at 37.2 percent. UNC has hit 98 triples and UM 65.
But UM has found a higher gear since league play started. Key to its uprising has been the emergence of reserve forward Caitlin Lonergan, who scored a team-high 12 points and grabbed six rebounds in Thursday's win at North Dakota.
Lonergan, who played volleyball at Montana State in 2016 and prepped at Bozeman, is a 6-foot-2 leaper who can finish around the rim and doesn't seem the least bit jittery in crunch time.
"Caitlin showed (Thursday) night that she's going to be a big factor on this team," Schweyen said. "She just elevated. She did a couple things that we all looked at each other and thought, 'Oh my gosh.'
"I've been around a long time, there's things she does that not a lot of players do. She made a catch on the break, that finish in the first half going a million miles an hour and just jumped up and caught it and gathered and didn't travel. It was just fun."
Schweyen and her assistants are stressing defense going into Saturday's showdown.
"We're doing a nice job defending people and taking away some of their strengths," she noted. "Closing out is going to be a big thing Saturday. They penetrate-kick and we've got to do our best to contain them and keep them in front of us.
"But I love the way this team is continuing to find ways to improve and playing together. When we won Thursday night, in the locker room you could tell it's a very tight-knit group."