BOISE, Idaho — The regular season was an exercise in inconsistency for the Montana State women’s basketball team, but a new season has arrived.
Following a first-round bye, the fifth-seeded Bobcats (16-14) will open the Big Sky Conference tournament Tuesday against Portland State (22-7) at CenturyLink Arena. Tip time is 2:30 p.m.
The matchup is compelling in that it’s a rematch of the regular-season finale from just four days ago, a 68-55 win by the Vikings on Saturday in Bozeman. PSU won both regular season matchups against the Bobcats.
Nevertheless, MSU coach Tricia Binford sees this postseason tournament — being contested here after a three-year run in Reno, Nevada — as a fresh start for her team.
“Everything’s washed and you take what you learned in the regular season and you just try to bring the most consistent game that you can,” Binford said Monday. “I think we’ve got kids that have been in this situation before and those are the kids you’ve got to rely on to get everybody else going.
“It’s a different venue so it feels somewhat different, but at the same time there were butterflies today, even in our practice, so that’s always encouraging.”
The Bobcats are now two years removed from their most recent Big Sky tournament title and subsequent NCAA tournament berth in 2017, but some key contributors remain in the form of guard Oliana Squires and posts Madeline Smith and Blaire Braxton.
Squires is MSU’s scoring leader among active players at 11.1 points per game and was named to the All-Big Sky third team on Monday. Claire Lundberg (17 ppg) was also a third-team pick and was chosen the league’s newcomer of the year, though she is out for the year with a torn ACL.
Meanwhile, Smith and Braxton have provided the Bobcats with a strong post presence, combining for roughly 16 points and 11 rebounds per game.
Binford said MSU will also have forward Martha Kuderer back in the lineup. Kuderer, who averages just under 10 points per outing, was sidelined against PSU on Saturday due to a bout with pink eye.
To overcome a third loss to Portland State, Binford said the Bobcats must focus on themselves.
“I just think we have to be more consistent,” Binford said. “Portland State does what they do — they make it hard to get good looks for shots. At their place we got off to a great start but lost a little bit of our mindset to attack.
“We had some foul trouble at our place and we were just super flat for the majority of that game. We’re going to have to bring the energy.”
Remaining consistent has been a problem at times for the Bobcats, who haven’t had a winning streak longer than two games all year.
By the same token, Portland State put up the most regular-season wins of any team in the Big Sky. The Vikings’ Sidney Reilly (14.6 ppg) leads a balanced attack. Reilly was a first-team all-conference selection.
The winner will advance to the semifinal round Wednesday to face either top-seeded Idaho or No. 8 Northern Arizona. The Lumberjacks are coached by Havre native Loree Payne.
Binford said the Bobcats aren’t feeling many jitters.
“I don’t know if anxious is the word,” she said. “I think we’re just excited. I’m excited to see what our kids can do. We’ve had some moments but this is the time of year where you need to put those pieces together.”