Viks host Bengals in Big Sky home opener��

While Big Sky Conference play is already underway for Portland State women’s basketball, Vikings fans have yet to see any of the league action in Portland.

While Big Sky Conference play is already underway for Portland State women’s basketball, Vikings fans have yet to see any of the league action in Portland. But that will change Monday, when PSU hosts the Idaho State Bengals.

The Vikings (7-7, 0-1 Big Sky) are facing a difficult league schedule that puts them on the road for four of their first five Big Sky games, and on Monday they will look to prevent a loss on their home court. Last night, PSU faced Northern Colorado (6-9, 1-1 Big Sky), the results of which were not available as of press time.

Last year, PSU and Idaho State split the conference series, with both teams winning at home. The important win for the Vikings came when they defeated Idaho State, 75-61, in the Big Sky Championship tournament. While the Bengals were moderate contenders for the league title last year, they have started this season much stronger, going 10-4 overall and 1-0 in Big Sky play.

PSU has won six of the last seven games against the Bengals and will count on its home-court advantage this week to send the Bengals an early-season message. The Vikings are 5-1 this season at the Stott Center.

Although the past has seen success for the Vikings when paired against Idaho State, there are no guarantees in the Big Sky Conference. Head coach Sherri Murrell knows the difficulties of having a target on your team’s back, as the Vikings made it to the Div-I NCAA Tournament last season for the first time in school history.

It is still very early in the conference season and teams have yet to establish themselves as frontrunners for the conference championship. Murrell emphasized that the Vikings cannot afford to go out and play anything less than all 40 minutes in every game this year. Finishing games is what makes teams contenders.

“We have to come out with effort every night, no matter the opponent,” Murrell said. “No team has shown dominance yet in the Big Sky, so we cannot afford to look past any teams, especially since they are wanting to defeat last year’s champions. We always have to put in 40 minutes and give a full effort.”

Idaho State has heavily relied on guard Chelsea Pickering for creating offense. Pickering averages 18 points and 5.2 rebounds per game in her senior season, and she has emerged as a primary leader for the team. Her outside shooting will be dangerous if not covered up immediately by the Viking defense. Murrell and company are familiar with Pickering, and the Vikings’ coach also knows the shiftiness of Idaho State’s offense.

“They are great with their motion offense, smoothly creating picks and screens,” Murrell said. “We are going to have to play our best defense and make some big stops.”

Murrell is first emphasizing defense, because the potential is already there on the offensive side, with dangerous 3-point shooters in guards Eryn Jones and Kelli Valentine who are averaging above 37 percent from behind the arc. They will have to be on top of their game after losing starting center Shauneice Samms to injury, who provided easy points in the paint for the Viks.

Freshman center Allie Brock has been injected into the starting lineup and since the injury to Samms she has been holding her own under pressure. While Samms provided excellent defense and was 62 percent from the field, the Vikings must create cohesion in the new lineup to have a solid defense and an offense that can get shots in the paint.

There have not been many changes to Murrell’s overall game plan since the loss of Samms, but continuing to focus on one game at a time has been key. The loss was big, but Samms is likely to not miss the entire season and should be back in a few weeks. Murrell knows that getting through January in decent shape will be a task in itself, but it is something she believes her roster is capable of doing.

“This month is going to be tough on our players,” Murrell said. “It is an incredibly tough schedule to start out with, but we just need to emphasize playing all 40 minutes and trying to come home with a few road wins, and we can come out alright.”

The Viks play five of seven games away from home this month, but they are not making any excuses when it comes to having to win games. The chance to catch some fresh air and win at home against the Bengals will be huge for the Viks this month.

Creating a solid defense will allow the Viks to have instant offense on the other side of the ball and make shots from where they are dangerous, behind the arc. Look for Kelly Marchant to have another big game, as she went 4 of 5 on 3-point shooting against Eastern Washington and ended the first game of conference play with 17 points. ?