Montana outmuscles Idaho State for conference win, 74-62

The Montana Grizzlies (6-8, 1-0 BSC) took care of business in their Big Sky Conference opener, defeating the visiting Idaho State Bengals (2-11, 0-1 BSC) 74-62 at Dahlberg Arena on Thursday.

Guards Walter Wright and Ahmaad Rorie combined for 45 points, and the Griz dished out a season-high 21 assists with just eight turnovers, leading Montana its first three-game win streak of the year.

The Griz entered the game at a less than ideal 5-8 after emerging from the most challenging nonconference schedule in program history. Montana came out of the blocks in the league season running, however, shooting 50.8 percent from the field against the Bengals.

“Whatever we came in with before doesn’t really matter. At this point every game is a championship game, and we need to approach it like that, and I thought we did a good job of that tonight,” said head coach Travis DeCuire.

Wright’s 21 points were just two shy of setting a new season high for the senior, and the third time this season he’s broke the 20-point barrier. He is now the Grizzlies’ second-leading scorer, averaging 10.6 per game.

Rorie moved his average points-per-game above 16 (16.1) for the first time this year and has scored 19 points or more in the last five of the last seven games, with outings of 25, 21 and 24 points during UM’s three-game win streak.

Fabijan Krslovic and Michael Oguine finished just shy of double figures with nine points each but were huge defensively with Krslovic pulling down a game-high 12 rebounds, and Oguine adding six.

With their help, Montana’s defense managed to neutralize two of the Big Sky’s top scorers in Ethan Telfair and Geno Luzcando, holding Telfair to 19 points and keeping Luzcando scoreless in the second half for a total of eight points.

“That might have been our best defensive game, complete game, that we’ve had all year. We’ve had some halves where we’ve been really good, but I think this is the first time we’ve put a complete game together defensively – holding a team to 40 percent in two halves,” added DeCuire.

The tension and physicality of conference play got to both teams early, as Montana’s Jack Lopezand Geno Luzcando both received technical fouls within the first three minutes. The Griz gritted their way to an early 8-0 lead as they held the Bengals scoreless through the first five and a half minutes of the game.

Idaho State had cut the Grizzly lead to three points before Oguine took over. The sophomore hit a corner three, then caught an inbounds pass in alley-oop fashion, slamming home an emphatic dunk. Rorie then connected on a pair of threes, both assisted by Oguine, to give Montana a 25-14 lead with just over eight minutes remaining.

In addition to their combined 45 points, Wright and Rorie also combined for 13 of UM’s 21 assists.

“The biggest thing is that we’re being unselfish and no one is taking bad shots. When that happens, the ball moves, and we get open on uncontested shots,” said DeCuire.

The Griz connected on seven straight field goal attempts late in the first half to build the lead up to 42-28 lead and maintained a double-digit advantage into the halftime break.

After spending the final three minutes of the first half scoreless, the Grizzlies came out of the locker room cold, allowing Idaho State to score the first seven points of the second half to cut the lead to 42-39. Rorie then hit his fourth three of the game to end the streak.

Montana used that to start a seven-point streak of their own. After a transition basket that saw crisp passes from Wright and Rorie and a contested finish by Oguine, the Griz moved ahead 54-41.

Walter Wright went on a mini 5-0 run by himself, making a pair of free throws after a flagrant foul and then hitting a three from the wing. Sayeed Pridgett added three more points to a run that put Montana up 18 with four minutes remaining and all but sealed the win.

Montana now rides the momentum of a three-game win streak into one of the most important matchups of the year, a championship rematch against Weber State in Missoula at 2 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.

That game marks the first time in two seasons the Wildcats have traveled to Missoula for the annual showdown of perennial league contenders. The Griz and Wildcats met only once in the regular season last year, with the UM falling to Weber 60-54 in Ogden before the two met again in the Big Sky tournament championship game.

New Year’s revelers can start their night off right with the 2 p.m. start time by showing their First Night Missoula button to gain free entry.