Riding high after knocking off a Power-5 team on Monday night, the Montana Grizzlies nearly did it again on Wednesday, hanging tough with Penn State before falling down the stretch, 70-57, at the Bryce Jordan Center. The Grizzlies held early leads in the contest and were within a single possession with under 4 minutes to play.
“It’s hard to swallow because we’re good enough to win this game,” head coach Travis DeCuire said.
The Grizzlies (2-1) held the lead at five different points in the first half and went into halftime trailing by just five. Penn State (3-0) came out of the intermission and doubled its lead to 10, but the Grizzlies followed with a 9-0 run to get within a single point, 51-50, with 9:50 to play.
Ahmaad Rorie played a key role in the run, stealing a pass and dishing it off to Bobby Mooreheadfor a layup. On Montana’s next possession, Rorie hit a jumper, followed by a three-pointer by Michael Oguine to cut the deficit to a single possession. Montana was not done, as Rorie took the next possession coast to coast for a breakaway layup.
“We did something a little tricky on defense and figured out how to open up the floor on offense, and that got us back in the game,” DeCuire said. “We were right there.”
The run forced Penn State to burn a timeout, and it worked. Following the break, Montana missed its next seven shots and turned the ball over twice. But when Oguine hit a three-pointer from the corner with 4:11 to play, Montana was still very much within striking distance, again trailing by just a single possession, 58-55.
The following progressions were Montana’s undoing, however. The Grizzlies turned the ball over on their next two times up the court and Penn State’s Shep Garner hit back-to-back three-pointers to push the Nittany Lions’ lead back to nine.
Over the final 9:50 of the game, Montana went 2-for-14 from the floor, turned the ball over four times and missed its final three free throws.
“Shep made some clutch shots that hurt us, but more than that, I thought it was the shots we were taking,” DeCuire said. “We weren’t willing to be patient and work the ball around. Every time we got close we hurt ourselves.”
Rorie finished with a team-most 16 points, in addition to four assists and three steals. He played 38 minutes.
For the second consecutive game, Montana out-rebounded a Power-5 team, pulling down 34 rebounds compared to Penn State’s 32, including a 10-4 advantage on the offensive glass. Montana also recorded nine steals to the Nittany Lions’ three; Penn State entered the game ranked seventh nationally with 13.0 steals per game.
In addition to Rorie, Oguine was also in double figures for scoring, totaling 15 and a team-high-tying seven rebounds. Jamar Akoh, who struggled through the first two games of his Montana career, had 11 points, six rebounds, two blocked shots and two steals.
Despite being in foul trouble, the Grizzlies primarily used a six-man rotation, with freshmen Timmy Falls and Karl Nicholas also adding seven minutes apiece. After playing three games in a five-day span – including an overtime contest and traveling across the country – DeCuire thought fatigue played a factor in some of the team’s mental mistakes. It also didn’t help that Penn State shot 50 percent from the floor and did some things differently defensively than Montana had seen on film.
“We had a pretty good game plan and we noticed that when you penetrate they collapse and they leave shooters, and it was going to be important for our guards to get to the paint, come to a stop and just turn around and there would be three, four guys open,” DeCuire said. “They just did not do that tonight.”
Montana comes home from its Pennsylvania road trip with a 2-1 record on the season. Next up, the Grizzlies will continue the Legends Classic with a pair of games in Malibu, Calif. Montana will face Oral Roberts on Monday, followed by a matchup against either UC Santa Barbara or host Pepperdine the following night.
“I asked the guys if success breeds success, and most people think that it does,” DeCuire said. “In reality, success breeds complacency. I thought we came out complacent. We discussed it this morning and challenged them last night to come in and play desperate like they did Monday night, and I think we just thought we were a little better then we really are, so now we have to go buckle down.
“We need to go get two wins on the road next week to finish this off. If someone would have told me ahead of time that we had the chance to go 3-1 in this tournament I’d take it. Now we have a chance to go do that.”