Montana survives North Dakota challenge, advances to tourney semifinal

With the win, Montana advances to Friday’s semifinal game against Northern Colorado, which beat No. 4 seed Weber State by 25 points on Thursday. Tipoff will be at 6:35 p.m. MT and will be broadcast on the Eleven Sports Network, Pluto TV (channel 231) and WatchBigSky.com. (GoGriz.com)

RENO, Nev. – Survive and advance is the name of the game in March, and on Thursday the Grizzlies found a way to do just that. Montana knocked off North Dakota, 84-76, to advance to the semifinals of the Big Sky Championship.

Montana has been paced by its all-conference guards all season and Thursday was no different. For the second time this year, Ahmaad Rorie and Michael Oguine were both over 20 points, combining for two-thirds of the team’s points.

Rorie totaled a career-high 30 points and five assists while shooting 4-of-4 from three-point range and 10-of-11 from the charity stripe. He had 22 points in the second half alone. Oguine finished the day with 23 points, including several clutch baskets in both halves.

“Your best is needed when it’s needed most,” head coach Travis DeCuire said. “We went to a lineup where we could play small and spread the floor out and let the guards play. They shake, rattle and roll as well as anyone.”

Senior Fabijan Krslovic tied a career high with 13 points and had his second double-double in a three-game period. He totaled 12 points, none bigger than back-to-back baskets late in the second half that virtually sealed the win.

Leading by just two points with 3 minutes to play, Krslovic used his signature jump hook to give Montana a two-possession advantage. The next time up the court, it was Krslovic again who converted with the shot clock winding down.

“He was huge,” DeCuire said. “The month of February was big for him, and it looks like he’s carrying it over to March.”

Montana would make six free throws down the stretch to keep North Dakota out of reach, advancing to the conference semifinals for the 25th time overall and third time in four seasons under DeCuire.

After averaging 22.5 points and 11.0 rebounds in two contests against North Dakota this season, junior Jamar Akoh was limited to just two points and five rebounds, taking just five shots. Sophomore Sayeed Pridgett took over off the bench with his second double-double of the season. He finished with 14 points and 11 boards, in addition to three assists.

Montana shot 49.2 percent from the floor and out-rebounded the Fighting Hawks 43-28. The Grizzlies made 8 of 12 shots from deep, shooting a season-best 66.7 percent. North Dakota, which averaged just 7.2 three-pointers per game this season, was led by Dale Jones, who had six three-pointers and a career-high 22 points in the first half alone.

“Once we put a guard on Jones we were all right,” DeCuire said. “Loser-out situations are sometimes tough to adjust to, and guys were a little bit tight. We were making mistakes that we don’t make, like not rotating to shooters. We’ll grow from it.”

The game was tied at halftime and featured 12 lead change and seven ties, but Montana played from in front for the final 12 minutes by using a big run.

North Dakota scored 14 points in the first 4 minutes, 12 seconds of the second half to take a six-point advantage, 56-50. The Fighting Hawks were held without a field goal for the next 6:02, however, as Montana ripped off a 13-3 run to turn the tide.

During the run, North Dakota shot 0-for-5 from the floor and turned the ball over once, while Montana got five points from Krslovic and four from Oguine, plus two from both Pridgett and Rorie.

Montana maintained the lead for the remainder of the contest, although North Dakota cut the deficit to a single possession twice. The second time, with just over 3 minutes to play, is when Krslovic took over. Montana closed the game on a 10-2 run.

“It was a grind, like we knew it would be,” DeCuire said. “It always is this time of year.”

With the win, Montana advances to Friday’s semifinal game against Northern Colorado, which beat No. 4 seed Weber State by 25 points on Thursday. Tipoff will be at 6:35 p.m. MT and will be broadcast on the Eleven Sports Network, Pluto TV (channel 231) and WatchBigSky.com.