By Montana Sports Information
The Montana Grizzlies’ depth at guard provides them the luxury of being able to sub in big time shooters when the starter’s hands go cold.
Brandon Gfeller came off the bench and did just that, draining five three-pointers for 17 points to help lead the Griz past Pepperdine 71-70, capping off the most demanding nonconference schedule in program history with a 5-8 record.
Montana now enters the Big Sky Conference season riding a two-game win streak, with Idaho State on deck and a championship rematch with Weber State looming on New Year’s Eve.
The Griz made a season-best 13 three-pointers as Jack Lopez chipped in with three triples and a total haul of 11 points. Ahmaad Rorie added three more from behind the arc and led all scorers with a total of 21 points.
“I’ll take 54 percent from three,” said Montana head coach Travis DeCuire. “The biggest thing with that is that Jack, Brandon, and Ahmaad took the bulk of the shots, and those are our three best shooters.”
After Montana ran out to a 37-29 halftime lead and went up by as many as 10 early in the second half, the Waves (4-8) refused to go away, coming back to take a three-point lead with 3:29 remaining as Montana suffered through a nearly five-minute drought from the field.
As the clock wound down, Rorie hit his biggest three of the game, and Bobby Moorehead was fouled scoring a layup with 2:03 remaining to give the Griz the lead for good, 70-65 after the successful free throw.
“One of the keys I put on the board was: don’t expect it to be easy,” added DeCuire. “I think we made it a little difficult on ourselves inside the 10-minute mark with some missed free throws and missed layups. We had key opportunities to pull away in double figures, but they kept scoring, and we gave them momentum.”
Montana was once again solid defensively, holding Lamond Murray Jr., who had averaged nearly 20 points-per-game to just 14 on the night while forcing 19 turnovers by the Waves.
Rorie finished just two assists shy of his first double-double of the year with eight, and the Griz gave out 18 assists in total, compared to just nine for Pepperdine.
A zone defense from the Waves forced the Grizzlies outside to start the game, with Montana making four of its first five shots from three-point land as they jumped out to a 14-12 lead. A lay-up from Pepperdine’s Nolan Taylor with just under 10 minutes left gave the Waves their first lead of the game at 17-16.
Lopez put Montana back in charge, connecting on back-to-back threes to give UM a four-point lead and force the Waves to move to a man-to-man defense. The Griz maintained the lead for the rest of the half, thanks in part to an and-one finish with the left hand followed by a triple from Rorie that grew the Griz lead to 37-29.
Montana started out slow offensively in the second half, but Gfeller, who had only scored three points in the last five outings, gave them a burst of scoring with consecutive threes within 30 seconds of each other. That burst put Montana on top 51-42 with just under 14 minutes to play.
“He’s a winner,” said DeCuire of the senior from Colfax, Wash. “He’s a phenomenal person, and there is a reason for the last three years he’s been named the player that best represents Grizzly basketball. He gets it, and he knows his opportunities are coming.”
Pepperdine answered with a 9-0 run to tie the game at 51-all, but a pair of free throws from Sayeed Pridgett ended the Waves’ run. Gfeller connected on his fifth three of the contest, this time a fadeaway from the corner, that put Montana on top 58-55 with eight minutes left.
The Waves went ahead for the first time in the second half 62-60 on a pair of free throws from Nate Gehring. More Pepperdine free throws, this time from Elijah Lee, matched the biggest lead of the game for the Waves at three points.
Rorie, who was at his best when he needed to be, hit a three from the left wing to give the Griz the lead back. Moorehead then nearly brought the house down, just missing on a poster slam but finishing a layup through contact for an and-one that put Montana ahead 70-65 with two minutes left.
After Montana failed to get a shot off before the shot clock expired on their final possession, Pepperdine had a chance to tie the game up, taking control with 11 seconds left.
But on the final play, Rorie stole a Waves pass and was fouled, connecting on one-of-two from the line to make it a four-point game. Pepperdine made an uncontested three at the buzzer, but it didn’t matter as Montana held on for the one-point win.
After taking five wins (that could have easily been seven wins had it not been for some last-minute heroics by Grizzly opponents) out of the most difficult nonconference slate in team history, Coach DeCuire feels good about where his team is headed.
“I still feel like we’ve played good enough to be 7-6. So right now we’re getting better. We’re better now than we were two weeks ago and we’ve got two straight wins going into conference. We’re going to go get fresh, come back and see what we can do.”
The Griz will now rest their legs over the holiday break before returning to the gym next week to prep for the Big Sky schedule and Idaho State on Dec. 29.