While University of Montana students flew home for the holidays or ground out a few weeks of work to pay for this semester’s books, the Grizzlies’ basketball team was excelling and stuttering on the road. After Saturday’s win against the Idaho Vandals, the Griz hold a 5-2 Big Sky record and a 12-6 record overall.
Here’s what you missed over break:
The Griz fell in non-conference play to the Pac-12’s Arizona Wildcats. A preseason wrist injury to senior forward Jamar Akoh kept him out of the game, and a road-heavy schedule over the last month has made physical therapy difficult. He’s back to playing consistently now, but he missed seven games due to the injury.
In the loss to Arizona, senior guards Ahmaad Rorie and Michael Oguine scored 29 of the Griz’s 42 points. Rorie’s team high of 19 points marked the fourth time he scored at least 19 points against a Pac-12 team in his career.
The team’s biggest non-conference win came in a late-December game versus South Dakota State. Montana broke the Jackrabbits’ 26-game home winning streak, the longest in the nation, as four Griz hit double-digits, and Oguine posted 23 points and nine rebounds.
The team beat last year’s non-conference season by one win (7-4) despite facing a difficult lineup of opponents, including some of the best offensive teams in the nation, and upheavals to their starting lineup due to injuries.
Riding the energy of the team’s win over SDSU and a few days off for Christmas, the Griz beat Northern Arizona in the Big Sky Conference opening game on Dec. 29. Sophomore guard Timmy Falls defended NAU’s Carlos Hines after halftime, reducing his scoring from 16 points in the first half to six points in the second. Rorie scored a season-high of 24 points. NAU led the Griz in 3-point and free throw percentages.
The Griz continued winning, beating Southern Utah for the 13th consecutive time. Montana finally returned home to bring in the New Year with a 30-point blowout of Sacramento State on Jan. 3, but the three-game Big Sky winning streak was destined to end quickly in the Griz’s fourth game in one week.
Portland State, run by sophomore point guard and standout shooter Holland Woods, closed a seven-point deficit against the Griz in the final two minutes of the game to force the Griz into overtime on their home court. The Griz fell by three points (77-74)
Messy fouls against strong free-throw shooters by the Griz defense gave points away to the Vikings at key points in the game. Both teams played physically with 44 total fouls, leading to 60 combined free-throw points. Neither Rorie nor Oguine made a single 3-point field goal that night. The loss killed a 20-game home winning streak for the Griz. The Vikings posted better percentages than the Griz in every shooting category.
The heart-wrenching loss was made brighter only by Kendal Manuel’s career-high of 22 points, proving his shooting consistency as the quiet backbone of the team. Head coach Travis DeCuire tried to lessen the blow after the loss.
“A little bit of humility never hurt anyone,” DeCuire said.
But then the team lost again, this time on the road, to Eastern Washington, the team that the Griz beat last year in the Big Sky Championship. Akoh saw little playing time due to early fouls.
DeCuire attributed the two losses to under-estimating opponents and not wanting the win as much as the other team. When the Griz flip the switch and play together, they seem almost unstoppable, but the team’s inconsistency has frustrated fans.
Apparently, it took two losses to shake the Griz back to life. The team traveled to Northern Colorado, a favorite to challenge the Griz for the championship, and the Griz terminated the Bears’ 11-game home winning streak.
The team lost a season-low of nine turnovers. The UNC Bears went into the game ranked 36th in the NCA A in three-point shooting, but the Griz held the Bears under 16 percent. Akoh made a royal comeback from his foul trouble the game before. He scored 13 points and pulled down 11 rebounds with only three fouls in 33 minutes of play time.
On Saturday, despite a low scoring game against the Vandals (69-51), the Griz ground out a win. The team overcame a poor field goal percentage in the first half to create a high-pace offensive second half.
Over break, Rorie maintained his spot among 50 mid-major players on the 2018-19 Lou Henson Award watch list, which is given to the nation’s top player outside of the NCAA’s Power Five conferences. The award will be presented in April. Junior guard Sayeed Pridgett won Big Sky Conference Player of the Week on Jan. 15 after a career high of 29 points against the Bears.
The team returns home to face Idaho State on Thursday, then hosts Weber State for the first time this season on Saturday. The Griz will try to shut down Jerrick Harding, Weber’s hot-shooting junior guard.