MISSOULA — It's been a while since the Montana Lady Griz sat perched atop the Big Sky Conference basketball standings.
Staying there is going to be a real bear.
Montana faces arguably its toughest road swing of the season, playing at North Dakota Thursday and at league co-leader Northern Colorado Saturday. The Lady Griz are 2-0 in Big Sky play and the Fighting Hawks 0-2, so North Dakota is going to bring a sense of urgency into its game with Montana.
"They're 5-0 at home and they've lost a couple real close ones on the road," Lady Griz coach Shannon Schweyen said of the Hawks, who fell to 7-6 overall after blowing double-digit leads at Idaho and Eastern Washington last week.
"Sometimes that's not always good playing somebody coming off something like that. I'm sure we'll have our hands full."
The Lady Griz haven't fared well at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center in Grand Forks, North Dakota. They've lost five in a row there, although they turned in one of their best road performances of 2016-17 in Grand Forks, eventually dropping a 73-63 verdict last January.
"I do think that helps sometimes," Schweyen said of her team's most recent memory in North Dakota. "That was one of our better games last year. To play in an environment like that where there was a crowd, our girls really responded well. This group has typically played well when there are people there."
The Lady Griz (6-7) are playing their best basketball since Schweyen took the reins last season. They've won three games in a row and six of their last eight.
But the fact remains, they haven't won a road game since the winter of 2016. They need to find their way over the hump mentally and physically against a UND team that has won 11 straight home contests dating back to last season.
"Last year when we were down in a game it was kind of hard for us to see the light at the end," Montana sophomore guard McKenzie Johnston said. "This year we keep plugging away. We know what we’re capable of and we push to the end.
"I think we’re going to surprise some people. We’re showing the kind of determination we need to have to do well in the Big Sky."
North Dakota shared the Big Sky regular-season title with Montana State last season and Hawks coach Travis Brewster was named conference coach of the year. Picked to finish second behind Northern Colorado in the Big Sky preseason polls, Brewster's team is not as imposing this season and hasn't shot real well (38.8 percent average from the floor).
"They may be a little bit more athletic this year and not quite as big," Schweyen said. "(Forward) Lexi Klabo is having a heck of a season so far.
"(Forward) Fallyn Freije is also a really good player. She can shoot from the perimeter and score from the inside. Klabo is blocking lots of shots and she averages almost 10 rebounds per game. Freije is more of a bigger shooter. But both have big, strong bodies."
Montana is coming off its best shooting performance under Schweyen, hitting 50 percent of its shots in a home win over Southern Utah Saturday. The Lady Griz had a season-high 10 triples in the game and it's a trend they'd like to continue because it opens things up in and around the paint.
Schweyen does have a new conundrum this week. One you won't hear her complaining about.
Sophomore Caitlin Lonergan has emerged as a force in the paint. She showed off her leaping ability and tenacity in her debut Saturday and Schweyen needs to find her some minutes.
"They all kind of bring something different to the table, all of our bigs do," she said. "This is a trip where it's nice to have more depth inside because North Dakota is big and strong and rebounding has always been something they hang their hat on.
"The whole thing is a bit of a challenge right now with the number of kids who are playing. We're trying to keep people fresh but still keep our best players and defenders on the floor. The nice part is we're able to start to search for whoever has a hot hand that night."
Regardless of which players get the most minutes, Johnston says it's important for her team to keep the right frame of mind on the road.
"We have to stay upbeat and know we’re not going to win games just showing up," she said. "Every team in our conference is good. We have to have a little bit of swagger that we can beat teams and surprise people."