Senior guard Walter Wright played like it was his last game in maroon and silver in the Big Sky Conference tournament quarterfinal against Idaho on Thursday, leading all scorers with 22 points.
Unfortunately for Montana, Wright’s big game and a second half Griz comeback wouldn’t be enough as UM fell to the Idaho Vandals in an 81-77 thriller in Reno, Nevada.
“We fought hard, and I’m proud of the way these guys played today,” said Montana head coach Travis DeCuire.
“Walter’s performance was incredible. For a senior in your last game – you hope it’s not your last game – but I think when he looks back at it, he’ll be proud.”
Idaho stormed out of the gates early, shooting better than 70 percent from the floor heading into the final media timeout of the first half to build a lead as big as 13 points with four minutes to play before the break.
But Wright (who also scored 20 against Idaho in last year’s Big Sky tourney) and the Grizzlies battled back in the second half, as halftime adjustments to take away the Vandal’s ball pressure paid off, eventually giving the Griz a brief one-point lead with 1:49 to play.
First team All-Big Sky guard Victor Sanders and the Vandals made clutch shots down the stretch to seal the win, however, as the Grizzlies closed out the year with a 16-16 overall record.
“It came down to who wanted it more, to be honest. They were physical, they got after it in the paint, they were emotional, it was a little bit of a roller coaster ride for us. But all credit to my guys to fight back the way they did, get themselves back in it and take the lead,” said DeCuire.
“We needed defensive discipline down the stretch. We gambled with steals twice that turned into baskets for them when we needed stops. If you do that, stay positive and stay strong down the stretch, I’d think that would have got us the game. But all respect to Idaho, they earned it.”
Montana now graduates four seniors in Wright, Brandon Gfeller, Jack Lopez and Mario Dunn. An understandably emotional Wright credited his teammates for putting the Griz in a position to win after the game.
“The younger guys on our team wanted it for me, Mario, Jack, and Brandon. I can’t ask for better teammates than these guys. They fought for me all night, and I wouldn’t want to be on a team with anybody else. These are my brothers, and they fought for me,” said Wright.
Even with four scorers in double figures the Grizzlies only shot 44 percent from the field, while the Vandals finished their hot-shooting first half at 65 percent, and ended the game shooting 54 percent with five players in double figures.
To start the first half, Rorie opened the scoring for the Griz by draining a three from the top of the key to give UM an early 3-2 lead. He continued to give Montana an offensive spark, putting up eight points heading into the first media timeout with UM carrying a 13-11 lead.
Idaho then went on an 8-2 run through some tough defense by Pridgett, who took a charge, and picked up an Idaho offensive foul on the next trip down the court.
UI then continued its first half surge, extending its run to 17-4 while the Griz went four minutes without a bucket halfway through the period.
Bobby Moorehead got the Griz moving again with a three-pointer that made it a seven-point contest, but Idaho had an answer for every step UM took, with Brayon Blake and Sanders each connecting on three-pointers that put the Vandals out to their biggest lead at 36-23 with 4:27 left in the half.
At the time, it seemed like Idaho couldn’t miss, shooting over 71 percent from the field and going 4-of-7 from the arc heading into the final media timeout of the period.
Oguine then picked up his second foul during Idaho’s hot streak, forcing the dynamic sophomore to the bench for long stretches.
The Griz then started a run of their own as the half closed. Wright hit a pair of jumpers then capped the run with a big time three-pointer from the corner that got the sizeable Montana contingent on its feet, as the Griz went on an 11-5 run, trailing 41-34 at the break.
“I don’t think we fought for position early enough and our lack of ball pressure caught up with us. We made our run at the end of the first half off the pressure, but Mike’s two fouls kind of backed us off, because we needed him on the floor to be an aggressive team,” added DeCuire.
Jack Lopez opened the second half with a three from the elbow to start the Montana comeback.
Montana continued to chip away at Idaho’s lead, though, playing solid defense for spells by forcing a shot clock violation and blocking three-straight Vandal shots on a single possession.
Rorie finally tied the game at 61, hitting a stone-cold three from the top of the key. That shot broke a 27-minute dry spell for the sophomore, with his last bucket falling with 15 minutes left in the first half.
Both teams continued to go shot-for-shot until Wright tied the game again at 68 with 4:39 to play with a huge three-pointer from the corner that put him on 18 points.
Sanders later showed why he is Idaho’s most dangerous player. With the shot clock winding down and facing a trap on the baseline from Moorehead, the Vandal junior somehow pivoted his way through the D to kiss a jumper off the glass that put UI up 77-74 with 48 seconds to play.
With the game on the line and Montana trailing 79-77 with 13 seconds to play, Wright put the Grizzlies’ destiny in his hands, driving the lane for one of his signature floating jump shots. But the Idaho defense was there to shut him down, and Moorehead missed an opportunity at a tip-in. The Vandals collected the rebound that would seal the game, eventually pulling away 81-77 on free throws.
“It’s been a difficult season and a long season, but we grow. We grow as a program as individuals as staff and me as a coach, we all grow from all the adversity and experiences,” said DeCuire.
“We’ve got great young men in our program, and I look forward to seeing them all be successful when they move on. It’s just unfortunate we’ve got four seniors moving on that never played in a NCAA tournament.”