With a chance to hang a second straight Big Sky Conference banner just one win away, Montana instead succumbed to Portland State’s high intensity pressure.
The Griz turned the ball over 10 times in the first 14 minutes of the game, then could never find any extra juice. Sayeed Pridgett tried to carry Montana after halftime, scoring 23 of his game-high 28 points in the second 20 minutes. But Holland Woods and Portland State once again showed no fear against the reigning Big Sky champions on the way to an 81-69 in front of 2,042 at the Peter W. Stott Center in the City of Roses on Thursday night.
“The reality is we have to toughen up, we have to scrap, man,” UM fifth-year head coach Travis DeCuire told Voice of the Griz Riley Corcoran in his post-game interview. “You can’t lose a game because you got out-hustled. Four times in the second half, we cut it down to seven, eight and we would leave shooters twice. The ball hits the floor, we don’t get it. Long rebounds by Portland State twice in the same possession…all those led to baskets and they kept going back up 10.
“Eventually, you run out of gas and you run out of time.”
Woods, PSU’s all-conference sophomore point guard, hit a pair of contested 3-pointers in the first half and scored 10 of his 20 points in the second half as the Vikings stayed alive for a first-round bye in next week’s Big Sky Tournament. A win Saturday against Montana State means the Vikings would finish in the top five in the league.
Five days after losing on a Kim Aiken buzzer-beater 68-66 at Eastern Washington, the Vikings bounced back. Jamie Orme started the onslaught with an enormous dunk on the first play of the game. Timmy Falls hit his second 3-pointer of the first half to give Montana its largest lead, 20-16, with 7:28 left in the first half.
But the Vikings finished the first half on a 12-2 run, pushed the lead to 46-27 four minutes into the second half and built a lead as large as 20 points, 50-30.
Pridgett used his deft touch and relentless mentality to convert 11 of his 16 field goal attempts in the second half. His second-to-last field goal cut the PSU lead to 65-57 with 3:40 left. But the Griz didn’t have enough gas in the tank.
Montana fell to 15-4 in Big Sky Conference play, 21-8 overall. Thursday’s loss combined with a 77-74 overtime loss to PSU in Missoula in January means the Vikings swept the Grizzlies this season. Portland State is the second school to sweep UM head coach Travis DeCuire in his five seasons at the helm for his alma mater.
“Their pace and pressure forces you to be a patient basketball team and make tough decisions,” DeCuire said. “We were attacking early in areas there weren’t advantages and that led to 11 turnovers, which gave them way too many possessions. You can’t give your opponent 11 extra possessions in a game where they are hyped up like they were. We put ourselves in a hole that was very difficult to get out of.”
The Grizzlies settled in during the second half against Portland State’s frantic press. DeCuire put the ball in Pridgett’s hands, allowing the versatile junior to attack the rim.
“I knew if I put the ball in his hands, that was going to pull the big way from the rim, which allowed us to attack,” DeCuire said. “(Sal Nuhu) couldn’t block shots if he’s not standing there at the rim. Sayeed is better against bigger guys when he’ve moving around. We were trying to force the issue with spacing and movement.
“Our biggest issue was we had too many forwards running to the corners in transition.”
UM senior guards Michael Oguine and Ahmaad Rorie each scored seven points after halftime but the Griz scored five other points combined. UM shot 51 percent from the floor but made just five of 18 from beyond the arc. Montana missed four of 12 free throw attempts.
Woods controlled the tempo on both ends while Deante Strickland came off the bench to hit four 3-pointers and score 19 points, including 11 in the second half. Behind 10 rebounds (and 10 points) from the 6-foot-10 Nuhu, the Vikings won the battle of the boards, 34-29.
Northern Colorado posted a 70-57 win at Southern Utah on Thursday to move into a tie for first place with the Griz. Because of a bevy of tiebreaker scenarios and the fact that UM swept Montana State and Weber State, the Griz will win the regular-season Big Sky title for the fifth time in the last eight years with a win at Sacramento State on Saturday.
Weber State’s 93-59 win over Idaho secured a first-round bye in the league tournament for the Wildcats. Eastern Washington posted a 91-62 win at Idaho State to stay in a three-way tie for third with Weber and Montana State. The Bobcats fell 70-67 to Sacramento State on Thursday.
MSU plays at PSU on Saturday needing a victory to secure a bye. Eastern plays at Weber State with the winner earning third. Northern Colorado plays at Northern Arizona. And Montana plays at Sacramento State.
“Play harder than your opponent,” DeCuire said. “That’s the only thing I’m going to write on the board: play harder than them. If we do that, we will come out with a W.”