Brian Fish remembers the first time he saw the Montana Grizzlies.
Fish was an assistant on Dana Altman’s staff at Oregon. The Ducks were at the San Jose regional, preparing for the first round of the 2013 NCAA Tournament. The 13th-seeded Grizzlies were preparing to face the Orange of Syracuse. The Ducks were preparing for Oklahoma State.
Oregon would ride the momentum of its Pac 12 Tournament title to a Sweet 16 bid before falling to eventual national champion Louisville. The Griz would struggle to do much of anything in an embarrassing 81-34 loss. Yet Fish remembers that day and remembers his first taste of the Big Sky cinference.
As Fish enters the stretch run of his second season as the head coach for the Montana State Bobcats, he is now directly chasing the Grizzlies. Montana is in first place again, gunning for its second straight regular-season Big Sky title and the 10th regular-season league banner overall.
“They’ve had a program for a decade now that has set the bar for the level people want to be,” said Fish, who’s Bobcats play at Montana on Saturday night. “We (Fish and Montana second-year head coach Travis DeCuire) walked into two different situations I think. They’ve continued to build it. We are starting to get there, making strides but we still have a long way to go.”
Fish’s Bobcats enter Saturday’s showdown with a 7-6 mark in league play and a 12-13 record overall, each stark improvements from his first season at the helm. Last winter, Montana State posted a 7-23 mark that included just four Big Sky wins in 18 league games.
The Bobcats have won three straight entering the rivalry game. MSU is tied for sixth place with North Dakota in the league standings. The top four teams at the end of the regular season will receive first-round byes in the conference tournament. The league moved the post-season qualifier to a neutral site in Reno. All 12 teams now receive bids.
Fish’s team finishes with a brutal five-game stretch that includes games at Montana, Weber State and Idaho State before finishing at home with UND and Northern Colorado. MSU could play its way into a first-round bye or plummet in the standings.
“Old-fashioned, I’m focused on Saturday because when you start looking at games and thinking this team will win, this team will win, you will see some crazy wins and losses this time of year,” Fish said. “I’ve always learned that you have to handle what we can handle and the rest will fall your way. I’m happy with the strides we’ve made but I don’t know if we are going to finish third, fourth, fifth, sixth or 10th.”
Montana does not have a chance to host for the fourth time in five seasons. But the Griz are certainly gunning for another trophy. Montana is 11-2 in league play, a game ahead of Weber State in the win column for the league lead. UM is 16-8 overall, including 10-1 in Missoula.
“We are hungry,” said DeCuire, an assistant at Cal on Mike Montgomery’s staff for six seasons before taking the head coaching job at his alma mater before last season. “We want an opportunity to compete for a championship and to win another championship.”
Montana State comes to the Garden City looking to snap an 11-game losing streak to the Griz that dates back to February of 2010. In the first matchup, MSU forced Montana stud power forward Martin Breunig into foul trouble and hung tough for the duration. Sarp Gobeloglu’s 3-pointer gave MSU a 64-63 lead with five minutes to play.
But a clutch bucket by Breunig with 1:17 left and clutch free throw shooting down the stretch by UM junior point guard Walter Wright helped lift Montana to an 80-72 win in front of 5,407 at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse.
“We need to be a different team this time,” DeCuire said. “We played from behind that game. We can’t continue to spot them.
“We were in a hole and when you are in a hole, you scrap, you scrap. What you do to get yourself out of the hole is effort. We fought our way back to win that game.”
Wright knocked down 12 of 13 from the free throw line and scored a game-high 24 points to go with a career-high 10 rebounds. Freshman guard Michael Oguine stepped up and scored 21 points, including hitting a dagger 3-pointer with 49 seconds to play to extend UM’s lead to 75-69.
Oguine also played lockdown defense on Tyler Hall, MSU’s star freshman who is averaging nearly 20 points per game in conference play. Hall scored 17 points but finished just 1-of-8 from beyond the 3-point arc against Montana.
“There was some trash being talked late between the two of them so their level of play increased for both of them,” DeCuire said. “The hoop got big for him for a stretch. That’s what he is: a gamer. He’s come through for us when it matters most. Tyler is a really good player and I don’t know if you can shut him down. You just have to keep his percentages down and contest as many shots as possible and hopefully wear him down.”
In a matchup of two of the league’s best point guards, MSU senior Marcus Colbert scored 21 points and dished out four assists but finished 7-of-19 from the floor as Wright won the duel.
“Walter Wright and the other young man played very, very well,” Fish said. “When you have your point guard go for a double double, that will change the game. It’s not a hidden secret that if Tyler and Marcus are not knocking shots down for us, we struggled. They dominated us.”
Big Sky defenses have skewed their schemes to hinder Hall’s jump shooting mastery. After scoring a career-low eight points against Portland State, Hall has bounced back to again make a case for All-Big Sky honors.
“I think if teams were starting a team and we had a draft in the league, I think he would be the first pick by everybody in the league,” Fish said.
While the guard battle will again be crucial, Breunig could be the deciding factor. The 6-foot-8 native of Germany has converted 32 of his last 36 field goals over the last four games. He was 12-of-14 from the floor and scored 29 points in UM’s 85-67 win over Northern Arizona, surpassing 1,000 points for his Montana career in the process.
“Way to ruin my lunch,” Fish said when told of Breunig’s recent shooting exploits. “It concerns me but it doesn’t surprise me. They have a great purpose of getting him the ball. I think as good as he is, I sometimes as a coach look at different things. They have some guys giving him the basketball in some great spots to score. They are as good a post passing team as we have in our league.”
In the first matchup with MSU, the Bobcats double and triple teamed Breunig, refusing to leave him even to help when Wright or Oguine drove to the basket. Breunig battled foul trouble the entire game yet still finished with 14 points in 27 minutes.
“The next two games, we play the two best players in the league but they are two totally different players,” Fish said, referring to Weber State senior center Joel Bolomboy (17.5 points, 13.5 rebounds per game). “I think Breunig is the best skill player in the league. He can pass, he can score, he can shoot jump shots, make free throws. Bolomboy is a little more dominating post player. Martin is a very skilled player who poses a tremendous amount of problems.”
DeCuire said he expects for the Bobcats to pull out all the stops once again to slow down Breunig.
“They are going to fight, push, hold, wrestle with him, keep a fresh body on him and try to wear him down,” DeCuire said. “They are going to double him from the baseline and sneak up on him. Sometimes, they will put three guys on him. He will have to play through that. Last time, he picked up an offensive foul through frustration with guys hanging on him. He’s got to play through it.”
Last weekend, Montana State lost starting center Shy Blake to a knee injury, yet the Bobcats managed to display depth for the first time in the Fish era. In a record-setting performance in a 101-58 win over NAU — MSU drilled a Big Sky-record 25 3-pointers — 10 Bobcats played at least 11 minutes and none played more than 24. Hall scored 29 points in 23 minutes. True freshman Sam Neumann (15), junior Nahjee Matlock (13), junior Steph Holm (12) and Gobeloglu (11) all scored in double figures as MSU scored 52 bench points.
Two nights later, MSU had five double figures scores and Holm scored nine. The Bobcats beat Southern Utah 80-73.
“It’s been coming on for a couple of weeks,” Fish said. “The development of our team is something I’ve been the most proud of. We have a lot of guys who can step on the floor now and have some confidence. To have Naj (Matlock) go and get a double double, to get Sam going and get shots now, you guys can see it, they are walking around with different confidence. The team is developing.”
While Montana State continues to develop, Montana continues to hum like a well-oiled machine. MSU hasn’t won the Big Sky since 2002 and hasn’t played in the NCAA Tournament since 1996. But Fish likes to only examine the present and the future, not the past. When addressed with the prospect of his team’s current losing streak to the rival Griz, Fish needed to be reminded.
“The 11 game streak as far as what?” Fish said. “I haven’t been there that long so I haven’t thought about it. A win would be a good next step for us as a program.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or noted. All Rights Reserved.