Following his team’s 78-71 loss at Eastern Washington on Thursday, Montana head coach Travis DeCuire said his team was only giving the proper level of respect to “teams with similar aspirations as us.”
The defending Big Sky Conference champions had lost consecutive games for the first in nearly a year. The EWU loss and an overtime loss to Portland State that snapped UM’s 20-game home winning streak altered the path for a team with NCAA Tournament aspirations once again.
Before Saturday’s game between the Griz and Northern Colorado, DeCuire said it would be a new experience to be the “hunter instead of the hunted in the Big Sky”. The Bears entered the game on an 11-game home winning streak and sporting a 4-0 record in conference play to sit alone in first place 20 percent into the 20-game slate.
Sayeed Pridgett was nearly perfect in scoring a career-high 29 points, Montana stretched its lead to double digits for good 12 minutes into the game and the Griz did not let up, thrashing the Bears in an 88-64 victory at Bank of America Arena in Greeley, Colorado on Saturday afternoon.
“Team effort,” DeCuire told Voice of the Grizzlies Riley Corcoran on his post-game radio show. “As a staff, that was probably our best preparation even though it was a quick turn around. As a group, our guys were focused because we made a couple of changes on both sides of the ball without a lot of time and I think they prepared for some things that they didn’t see.
“The biggest thing for us is our mental preparation. I thought the guys were focused on one thing and that was getting the W.”
The win helps haul Montana’s two-game losing streak and is the second-to-last game in a stretch dating back to mid-December that has seen the Griz play seven of nine on the road. UM is 5-3 over its last eight, including 4-2 in Big Sky play to move to 11-6 overall. Montana next plays in a week at Idaho to cap the nine-game stretch.
The loss is UNC’s first at home this season after five straight wins in Greeley. The Bears, who the Griz eliminated from the Big Sky Tournament in an overtime thriller last March in the semifinals before UNC raced to the College Insider Tournament title, are now 11-6 overall.
“I felt it (needing to make a statement) but I never expressed it because I didn’t want to hit the panic button and take the team’s confidence because that’s what we were lacking anyways the last couple of games,” DeCuire said. “We had to find a way to get confidence.”
DeCuire said he went to senior center Jamar Akoh and they mutually agreed that the team gleans confidence from Akoh’s leadership and DeCuire’s demanding style. Saturday, Montana shared the ball at a high level, leading to 62.7 percent shooting. All four of Montana’s seniors scored between eight and 13 points, including 12 points and eight rebounds for Akoh, and the Griz never hit a speed bump.
“We relieved the individual leadership and made an agreement that all of us have to lead. We have five upperclassmen and all five of you have to lead,” DeCuire said.
Pridgett, a junior from Oakland, California, hit his second 3-pointers to give Montana a 10-9 lead. He would go on to hit all four of his 3-point attempts and 11 of his 13 shots from the floor. The 29 points surpasses his previous career high of 28 points at Sacramento State as a freshman.
“He was locked in,” DeCuire said. “One of the things for us is we have a lot of guys who can score and sometimes, when you don’t get shots for long stretches, you get uncomfortable, you get antsy, you take bad shots. Today was the first time that all five guys were willing to let the ball go where it needed to go. Sayeed got hot.
‘That’s what these guys need to understand. One of you will get hot. Sometimes, more than one. And when that person does, let them go.”
UNC senior Jordan Davis entered the game with the nation’s highest usage rate and the Big Sky’s top scoring average. The explosive combo guard from Las Vegas was averaging 25.2 points per game, including 28.5 in league play. Davis scored 30 or more points four times this season, including 30 in a 75-63 win over Eastern Washington last weekend.
On Saturday, Montana senior forward Bobby Moorehead used his lengthy and savvy to disrupt Davis’ ability to penetrate and move in UNC’s offense. Davis finished 7-of-17 from the floor and had 18 points, his lowest total since he scored 17 points in 19 minutes in UNC’s season-opening 126-56 win over Colorado College.
UNC entered the game averaging 81.6 points per game. The Bears were shooting 47.7 percent from the floor, 38.3 percent from 3 and hitting 10.7 3-pointers per game. Northern Colorado made just two 3-point shots in 14 tries and shot 34.4 percent overall.
“We knew defensively, we were capable of doing that against good teams,” DeCuire said. “Kind of similar to the South Dakota State game (an 85-74 win at SDSU) a little bit.
On the offensive end, I was more impressed with the way guys moved and shared the ball. We went to some motion and we’ve never really been a motion team. That has been secondary. We had to trust each other and that was our No. 1 key going into this game, trust that the other guy is going to make the right play. We did that because we took care of the ball and got good shots.”
UM senior point guard Ahmaad Rorie scored 13 points to give him 1,397 in his career, moving him past former Griz forward Jordan Hasquet for ninth on UM’s career scoring list. Senior Michael Oguine scored 11 points to give him 1,446 points in his career, the eighth-most in Griz history.
Will Cherry scored 1,486 points in his career. Former Griz post and head coach Wayne Tinkle scored exactly 1,500 points.
Montana posted a 16-2 Big Sky record last season to earn the regular season title and the No. 1 seed in the Big Sky Tournament. One of those losses came courtesy of a Nate Sherwood tip-in at the overtime buzzer in a loss at Idaho. After playing Eastern Washington, the team the Griz defeated in the Big Sky Tournament championship game last spring, and Northern Colorado, the team that nearly shocked the Griz in the tournament semifinals, now the Griz get its first crack at the Vandals since that loss last season.
“We will try to go into that game fresh,” DeCuire said. “There’s some things I want to tune up and learn from today as well as the last couple of games. We will watch this film and see how we played offensively, see how we played defensively, see if we can continue to play this way.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.