The back-to-back losses last week are officially in the rearview. Montana got back to its winning ways in dominant fashion on Saturday night, knocking off rival Montana State, 90-63. The win, coupled with a Weber State loss to Idaho, clinches a share of the Big Sky Conference regular-season title. The Grizzlies can win the title outright on Thursday when they host Weber State.
In addition to locking up no worse than a co-championship with two games to play, Saturday’s win was significant on many levels. In terms of the rivalry, the Grizzlies have now won 15 of the past 16 games in the series vs. Montana State, and for the first time in the series’ 116-year history, Montana owns the all-time edge, 149-148.
“We’ve been fortunate to experience a few firsts this year, so it’s been a fun ride,” head coach Travis DeCuiresaid. “We’ll enjoy it tonight, be excited, take care of our bodies tomorrow, and then see if we can find a way to seal the deal by ourselves.”
The win also improved Montana’s record to a perfect 12-0 at home this season. The Grizzlies played in front of 7,256 fans – their largest home attendance since 2011.
The Montana Lady Griz added to the excitement earlier Saturday in Missoula, with their own trouncing of the Bobcats, 87-63.
The Montana women shot a season-best 54.5 percent and scored 53 second-half points to pull away from Montana State on Saturday afternoon at Dahlberg Arena, winning 87-63 to avenge an 81-64 loss at Bozeman last month.
The win snapped a four-game losing streak and will send the Lady Griz on the road next week with everything now on the line. They won’t return to Missoula until their season is over or they are Big Sky Conference champions. (See related story for full coverage of the Lady Griz game.)
In the men’s evening bout, six players reached double figures for the Griz – who scored 90 points for the third time this season – but once again, it was the defense that created separation.
Montana held Montana State to 31.1-percent shooting, including a stretch in the first half in which the Bobcats went more than 8 minutes without a field goal. During that span, Montana State shot 0-for-9 from the floor and turned the ball over three times.
The defense allowed the Grizzlies to close the first half on a 16-2 run to take control of the game. Leading by 16 at the break, Montana then scored the first four points of the second half and led by as many as 30 on the evening.
Montana forced the visitors into 16 turnovers (10 steals) and just 25 percent shooting from beyond the arc. Preseason Player of the Year Tyler Hall, who is averaging more than 18 points per game, was held to 2-of-16 shooting. In two games this season against the Griz, Hall scored just 21 points.
As good as they were on defense, the Grizzlies were nearly as strong on offense. Six players scored in double figures, with junior Jamar Akoh adding nine more points before fouling out in 16 minutes of action.
Falls played a key role in Montana’s 13-0 run late in the first half, scoring nine Griz points in a span of 1:34, including a three-pointer followed by a steal and breakaway and-one layup that he finished with a made free throw. He had all 14 of his points – tying a career high – in the first half.
“There’s no fear in Timmy Falls,” DeCuire said. “I also credit his teammates because they made the extra passes to get it to him instead of taking an OK shot. He was ready to go, and the guys off the bench were important to us.”
Pridgett was scoreless at the break but shot 7-of-9 in the second period to finish with 14 points, five rebounds and two assists.
“Sayeed was a little out of sync in the first half,” DeCuire said. “We talked about finding some areas where he could get some touches to finish. He got a little floater in the middle, then the hoop got big, he got some jump shots and next thing you know he’s got 14 points.”
Freshman Karl Nicholas had 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting, adding seven rebounds and two blocked shots.
Junior Ahmaad Rorie scored 11 of his 13 points after the intermission, also adding six assists to just one turnover. Junior Michael Oguine nearly recorded his second double-double of the season with 11 points and nine boards, plus five assists. Junior bobby Moorehead finished with 10 points, seven rebounds and four steals, including a steal and one-handed slam that got Dahlberg Arena roaring.
“Karl’s a monster on the glass,” DeCuire said. “Being the athlete he is, he finishes at the rim well. He was fired up and tuned in. he defended well enough to keep himself on the floor.”
The Grizzlies never trailed after taking a 4-2 lead, but led by just two, 21-19, before going on a 13-0 run over the next 2:40. They led by double digits for the final 22.32 of the game, and by at least 20 over the final 13:07.
Montana shot 53 percent on the night, including 61 percent in the second half. The Griz stuffed the stats sheet, leading the Bobcats in shooting, three-point shooting, rebounding, assists, turnovers, blocks and steals. The Grizzlies had 46 points in the paint compared to just 16 for the Bobcats. Montana also had 43 points off the bench.
With two games remaining in the regular season, Montana will have the opportunity to win an outright conference championship and lock up the No. 1 seed in next month’s conference tournament in Reno, Nev. It would mark the second championship in four seasons under DeCuire and the 10th in school history.
“I like how we’re playing right now,” DeCuire said. “We’re tuned in and doing some good things defensively. We want sole possession of first place, and then on senior night we want to send Fab off right and get a little bit of a win streak going into the conference tournament.”