Head coach Travis DeCuire and the Montana Grizzlies were expecting a defensive slugfest against Idaho, and that’s just what the Vandals gave them.
But Montana used an early momentum boost to fend off a second half Idaho comeback, thanks-in-part to 14 points from Brandon Gfeller, and beat the Vandals 70-57 on UM’s first trip to Moscow in two years.
The Griz now move to 7-9 overall and 2-1 in the young Big Sky Conference season and head to Cheney, Wash., on Saturday to take on the Eastern Washington Eagles with momentum on their side.
The Vandals, who were picked by the league’s coaches to finish in second place but have suffered a recent rash of injuries, move to 5-8 on the year and are winless at 0-2 in Big Sky play.
“The biggest thing for us to start the game was stops. It was all defensive. We knew this was going to be a physical game. Two things we focused on in practice the last few days were, number one, scrapping. Loose balls, finishing possessions, going and getting rebounds, one extra slide to keep the guy in front of us, those types of things. The other thing was just the competitiveness and playing every possession like it was a game-winning possession,” said DeCuire.
“I think we started the game that way, and that’s why we were able to get momentum early and playing from ahead is a lot easier than playing behind.”
Four Grizzlies scored in double figures against the Vandals, with Ahmaad Rorie putting in a team-high 19 points, the sixth game in a row he’s scored 19 or more. Also coming up big was “big shot” Bobby Moorehead with 10 points, the first time he’s hit double digits this season.
But a gritty steal from Michael Oguine and a pair of threes from Brandon Gfeller – who was playing in front of a hometown crowd, hailing from just 24 miles down the road from the Kibbie Dome in Colfax, Wash. – thwarted the Vandal comeback attempt, and the Griz went on to claim the win.
Montana opened the game on an 8-0 run thanks to a pair of threes from Oguine and Gfeller paired with a baby hook from Krslovic to start the scoring.
Gfeller made his first foray into the starting lineup this season against Idaho, and it paid off the for the Griz with his early spark.
“I wanted to balance my lineup a little bit. I thought we needed one more shooter to attack that zone,” added DeCuire. “We had success early by spreading them out and moving them around and eventually they came out of it, and we were able to play tempo, so I think it was a positive adjustment for us, and we’ll see if it continues.”
Idaho then pulled back with six-straight points, but another 8-0 run for the Griz halfway through the first period, coming from a pair of threes from Rorie and a Pridgett layup, extended the Griz lead to 10.
The Griz and Vandals would trade shots for the rest of the half, with Montana building the largest lead of the half at 12 on a three-pointer from Moorehead, his first since the Pepperdine game, and only his fourth three-pointer since Dec. 1.
Montana headed to the locker room with a comfortable 31-21 lead at the break, but it wasn’t all roses for the Griz as the Vandals were without the services of their leading rebounder BJ Blake, but still outrebounded the Griz 23-15 in the first half.
Associate head coach Chris Cobb challenged the Griz not to rest on their laurels and come out of the halftime break with energy, not wanting his team to suffer another slow start to the second half like they did against Weber State last week.
But in a Deja vu moment for the Griz, Krslovic was quickly pinged with a pair of fouls to open the second half, giving him four personals just two minutes after the break, the same situation the junior found himself in against the Wildcats.
But Moorehead made sure the Griz didn’t lose any productivity filling in for Krslovic, draining a three and making a nuisance of himself on defense to keep the Griz up by 12 with just under 17 minutes to play.
Idaho then closed the gap to make it a six-point game, before Gfeller drained a three-pointer to put UM up again by nine, followed immediately by a key steal from Oguine to put the momentum back on the Montana bench.
Gfeller took advantage of the momentum shift and drained his second-straight three to put him at 14 points and the Griz up 51-41 with just over seven minutes to play. The Griz had weathered the Idaho storm and would control the rest of the game to take the road win.
Montana now turns its attention to Eastern Washington, who remained undefeated at 8-0 in Cheney on Thursday, defeating Montana State 82-64.