Nearly year ago, in the cramped confines of Portland State’s Stott Center, Montana erased an 11-point second-half deficit on the strength of a career night from its man on the block.
Following a similar formula in a 88-79 loss to the Vikings Thursday night, Montana nearly bested the 50-week old comeback, taking aim at a 22-point hole before falling short in an opportunity to move into a first-place tie atop the Big Sky Conference standings.
Fabijan Krslovic scored 14 of his career-high 24 in a feverish run that saw Montana cut 16 points off Portland State’s lead. The one-sided seven-minute stretch was a wild swing from how the second half opened. Portland State hit 13 of its first 14 shots, including a 5-for-5 mark from the 3-point arc to build a 71-49 lead with a little less than 10 minutes expired.
“At the end of the day you have to be ready to play and we’re chasing a team that’s ready to play no matter who they’re playing; they bring their A-game for anyone,” Montana head coach Travis DeCuire said after his team’s four-game win streak was snapped, dropping them to 4-2 in conference. “I’m not sure we’re there yet. It’s not too late, we just have work to do.”
DeCuire’s comments, made in a postgame interview with KGVO radio, are presumed to reference Weber State, which lost to North Dakota right around the time the Vikings and Griz were set to tip. Weber’s 83-77 loss at North Dakota opened the door for Montana to move into a first-place tie with the Wildcats. Instead, UM sits tied with UND at 5-2 in league play. The Griz 10-10 overall. Portland State is 4-2 in league play, 11-6 overall.
Montana, spurred by Krslovic and the second-half 17 from Ahmaad Rorie, scrambled down the stretch to preserve that chance.
After a first half that relented 16 lead changes, Montana chased Portland State once its initial blitz came to an end. It started with a dump into to Krslovic and a lay-up continuing a theme that stretched the entirety of the Grizzlies’ mad dance. Montana ditched the 3-point arc for the rim and sliced its way through the Vikings zone.
The focus was to get the ball to the junior forward from Australia.
“In the second half we did a better job of finding (Krslovic),” said DeCuire, who was critical of his team’s awareness of Krslovic’s first-half matchup. “Honestly the way they were guarding him he could have had 40 tonight just catch it and lay it up.”
Mario Dunn, playing in his first game in almost three weeks, continued the run with a couple drives to hoop before Rorie took the reins. As he went on to a career-high 29, the sophomore guard raced ahead of Michael Oguine’s steal for a dunk, hit a in-rhythm 3, cut through the D to set up Krslovic and then sliced back through for two of his own.
The nine-point spurt cut the Vikings’ lead down to eight and set up the play the Griz were looking for to push them into the lead. Oguine stripped Calaen Robinson, gathered the ball and raced for the open rim. But he was caught from behind and rejected at the rim. Though Montana trimmed two more off the lead on Krslovic’s final points.
Montana had its chances to continue its push while the Vikings struggled from the line. Portland State, the league’s worst free-throw shooting team, missed eight of 13 attempts to keep Montana hanging around.
“We didn’t do a good job executing it in the first half and I thought that turned into some transition for them,” DeCuire said. “I want to say they had 14 points in the first half off our turnovers. They only get 3 in the second half. If we don’t give them double figures in the first half we don’t have that hole to dig ourselves out of.”
NOTES: Krslovic’s previous career high of 16 was set during Montana’s win over North Dakota on Saturday. … Montana’s 16 turnovers are the most its had since Dec. 17. … Montana out-rebounded Portland State 40-33, led by Oguine’s 10, the second straight game the guard has had double-figure rebounds. … PSU’s 88 points are the most Montana has surrendered this season.