Griz grind out win over North Dakota, 76-70

Montana and North Dakota went into Saturday’s game even in the conference standings. (GoGriz.com)

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Just two days after their best offensive performance of the season Montana had to get things done another way against North Dakota, grinding out a 76-70 victory in a defensive back and forth battle.

Montana (10-9/5-1 BSC) and North Dakota (9-7/4-2 BSC) entered Saturday night’s contest level in the standings, and 40 minutes of basketball looked like it may not be enough to separate the two as the Griz held UND to nearly 10 points below their season average.

But North Dakota’s Geno Crandall, who finished with a game-high 28, fouled out down the stretch and the Big Sky preseason MVP Quinton Hooker had a quiet night with just eight points. Ahmaad Rorie made UND pay for their indiscretions, hitting multiple clutch buckets to lead the Griz to the six-point win.

“The key for us tonight was not to let them both (Hooker and Crandall) go off. If we can slow one of them down, I thought we’d have a pretty good chance,” said Montana head coach Travis DeCuire.

Rorie, who has scored in figures for nine straight games, led Montana with 20 points and he also added five rebounds. His backcourt partner Walter Wright had another big game off the bench, scoring 13 points and dishing out four assists.

Montana’s starting frontcourt opened and closed the game strong, with Fabijan Krslovic and Jack Lopez combining for 29 points. Krslovic posted a career-high 16 and added 10 boards, second only to Michael Oguine‘s 11, to complete his second double-double of the season.

“We talked about playing together, helping each other out and making each other better,” DeCuire added. “We exposed some things on them, and they exposed some things on us. Down the stretch, though, we got the ball when we needed to get it off the glass.”

North Dakota set the pace early on, running the court well for some easy transition buckets to build an early 10-9 lead.

But Lopez, who connected on his first four three-point attempts Thursday, again started perfect from the field, knocking down his first three attempts from deep to help put Montana back in front 21-13 near the midway point of the first half. Lopez finished with 13 points and got the chance to play in front of his family, who traveled from Australia for the week’s games.

A cold stretch for Montana that saw zero points over three minutes allowed North Dakota to go on an 8-0 run. The Hawks regained the lead 27-25 on an and-one basket from 7-footer Carson Shanks.

After the frenetic start to the game, it was the defenses that settled in over the final stretch of the opening half. The two teams combined for 17 first half turnovers as Montana entered the break with a slim 32-31 lead.

“Transition defense was huge for us. Early on we had to have a conversation in a timeout about getting back. We were kind of jogging back, and they were getting that ball ahead of us and attacking. Once we got back and built our “D” up, it forced them to play half-court basketball,” said DeCuire, who is yet to drop a game to UND in his three-year career.

“We did a good job slowing them down and making their possessions longer than they wanted. And we pushed it on them a few times.”

The sloppy offensive play continued into the second half, as both sides struggled to find baskets. Crandall hit a three from the wing through a foul and converted the free throw to tie it up at 39-all with 15 minutes left.

Right when it appeared North Dakota had stolen the momentum, Krslovic scored back-to-back buckets and came up with a big defensive stop that led to a Lopez three on the other end, all part of a 9-0 Griz run that put them back ahead 49-41.

“We’ve been working with Fab on facing up before making his move, and he’s been way more aggressive as of late. When that ball starts going through the hoop for him, he’s going to start getting more touches, and that’s big for us because we need that inside presence to keep the balance.”

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Crandall, who had 26 points at the time, picked up his fourth foul of the game on a Walter Wrightand-one with just under 10 minutes remaining. Montana couldn’t take advantage of his absence, getting outscored by one while he was on the bench.

The Griz fouled on another made three-point attempts with just over four minutes remaining, with the four-point play cutting Montana’s lead to just three points at 66-63. Crandall fouled out during the midst of an 8-0 UND run.

Rorie ended that run on the next Montana possession, slicing to his left and finishing a fully-extended lefty layup through contact for an and-one to put the Griz up 69-65.

Montana again went to Rorie with under a minute left, and he proved clutch, knocking down a pull-up jumper with 41 seconds left to increase the Grizzly lead to six points. The Griz iced the game with free throws down the stretch for the 75-67 win.

The Grizzlies have now won four straight games and are above .500 for the first time this season after a difficult non-conference slate.

Montana continues league play on the West Coast next week, traveling to face Portland State and Sacramento State.