MISSOULA — With a bittersweet week behind them, the Montana Lady Griz will shoot for their biggest win of the young season Sunday at South Dakota.
The UM women's basketball team suffered a surprising setback after last weekend's win when reserve guard Sammy Fatkin informed coach Shannon Schweyen she was quitting. Fatkin, who left the University of Arizona program just a year earlier, was an asset offensively but a work in progress on the defensive end, preventing her from earning a coveted starting job.
The good news for the Lady Griz is junior forward Madi Schoening (back) is practicing again. Although she has seen action in only one game this season, she should provide a spark on both ends off the bench in Sunday's noon showdown.
The Lady Griz (4-3) will need all the sparks they can get against the formidable Coyotes (10-1). Ranked No. 21 in the USA Today/WBCA Coaches' Poll, South Dakota's only loss came against a Missouri State team that's ranked No. 20 in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll.
"Somebody was asking me about them and I told them, it would be like taking Mandy Morales, Kayleigh Valley, Sonya Rogers, Ann Lake and Jeanne McNulty and putting them all on one team," Schweyen said. "Just really good basketball players at every spot, real good fundamentally and they know what they're looking for on offense.
"Not only do they have some great wins against some big-time programs — Wisconsin-Green Bay, Drake, Utah, Creighton — but you look at their numbers and to be shooting 42 percent from three and close to 50 percent from the field is impressive."
South Dakota has remarkable balance, with four players averaging in double figures scoring and six averaging nine or more points per game. To put that in perspective, Montana has one player averaging in double figures (McKenzie Johnston at 12.9 points per game).
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Senior point guard Ciara Duffy is the Coyotes' best player, averaging 15.8 points per game while racking up 58 assists. Her 174 total points are 47 more than anyone else on the team.
The Lady Griz have put together a two-game win streak, with wins at Cal State Fullerton on Nov. 30 and Utah Valley last weekend. Neither performance was particularly pretty for Montana, but the veteran-laden team did show grit when it mattered most.
"I love the way they're fighting and the tenacity they're playing with," Schweyen said. "They're playing well together. They have dug deep and found ways to get it done and it's been different kids on different nights."
Freshman post Jamie Pickens of Helena enjoyed her best game at Utah Valley, tallying 15 points. She is fast becoming the X Factor for the Lady Griz and her progress will go a long way toward determining the success of her team this season.
"She's getting more comfortable all the time and understanding what we want out of her," Schweyen said of the 6-foot-2 reserve. "She's a big, strong girl and it takes a while sometimes when you're a post player like that to get used to the physicality of college versus high school and how physical you can play.
"She's beginning to understand her opportunities to score out of the offense a little better. And I'm proud of what she's doing on defense."
Notes: Montana lost in its only game against a ranked team earlier this season, dropping a 77-42 home decision to No. 18 Arizona ... With the departure of Fatkin and decision to redshirt Jordyn Schweyen, Shelby Schweyen and Carmen Gfeller, Montana is down to nine players on its active roster ... Johnston has reached 1,091 career points to move up to No. 27 on the Montana career scoring list. Next up: Jodi Hinrichs (1990-95) at 1,094, then Linda Weyler (1996-2000) at 1,108 ... South Dakota was picked first in the Summit League preseason poll, ahead of South Dakota State and Denver, teams which also received first-place votes.