MISSOULA — Over the last three seasons, Geno Crandall and the North Dakota Fighting Hawks have established a reputation as the fast-break masters in the Big Sky Conference.
Thursday at Dahlberg Arena, Montana ran the visitors from UND into the ground.
The Griz started their conference home opener with a blitz, forcing 10 straight North Dakota misses in building a 14-0 lead. Before UND could catch its collective breath, Montana’s transition shifted into high gear.
The Griz scored bucket after bucket in the open court, including five thunderous dunks by freshman Karl Nicholas during his breakout rookie performance and Montana never let off the gas, throttling the reigning Big Sky champions 109-79 in front of 3,220 here on Thursday night.
“We are better when we are aggressive and we push on offense,” UM fourth-year head coach Travis DeCuire said after moving to 6-0 in his career against UND. “I think pace is important to us. We knew that it was going to be up-tempo and someone was going to get tired.
“We were comfortable with an up-tempo game and we were looking forward to it.”
Montana won for the fifth time in six outings by equaling its highest point total since a 109-point outburst against Idaho State in March of 1991. UM started its only home stand over a 37-day span this winter by surpassing 100 points for the first time since hitting triple digits against Youngstown State in 1999. The Griz moved to 3-0 in league play.
“We know they want to push the ball even on makes so we have a motto that we want to start off with three stops in a row to start the game and go from there. We were up 7-0 and then we started pushing it even more,” Montana junior point guard Ahmaad Rorie said following a 22-point performance, his ninth game this season with more than 20 points. “
We started scoring and getting stops early and that goes back to the real good practices we’ve been having. We’ve been locked in.”
Last season Crandall, UND’s All-Big Sky point guard, scored a then career-high 29 points before late foul trouble relegated him to the bench in UND’s 76-70 loss in Missoula. The defeat served as one of only three BSC losses suffered by the Fighting Hawks during their first run to the NCAA Tournament.
Thursday, Montana’s efficient, moving, pressure defense cut off “all easy angles” for Crandall, Rorie said, in turn stifling UND’s half-court offense. The visitors missed 10 shots in a row before their first make, freshman Trae Buchanan’s 3-pointer with 12:44 in the first half. The Fighting Hawks shot 31 3-pointers and made only eight, part of a 38 percent shooting night, marking the third straight league game UM has held its opponent under 40 percent.
UND’s rushed and poor shot selection led to a seemingly endless string of points in transition for the Griz. UM dished out 21 assists as Nicholas, junior Michael Oguine (16 points) and junior Jamar Akoh (22 points, 11 rebounds) sprinted to most of their buckets.
While Rorie had one of his better shooting nights — the All-Big Sky performer hit 4-of-5 3-pointers despite entering the game shooting 33.3 percent from deep — and Akoh was his efficient, powerful self on the block, Nicholas ignited Montana’s biggest home crowd this season.
During one sequence, Nicholas drove to the basket and appeared to be fouled as he was knocked to the floor. After no whistle, he regained his feet, sprinted back on defense and tracked down Buchanan, who took a trailer transition pass from Creighton transfer Marlon Stewart and swatted Buchanan’s shot.
Less than 20 seconds later, Nicholas got in a passing lane, snared a steal and sprinted for a one-handed tomahawk dunk. Sophomore Sayeed Pridgett ripped Buchanan on the very next possession, fired a pass up court and Nicholas did the rest, flushing a two-handed dunk with authority to the glee of the UM marching band and student section.
“I like to consider myself having a motor and so I never give up even if I got fouled,” Nicholas sadi. “They teach us in practice even if you got fouled, just keep on playing. I fell down, ran the floor and got the block, which was a spark.”
The second dunk garnered a timeout from UND head coach Brian Jones with his team trailing 23-8 nine minutes in. The lead swelled to 29-10 two minutes later on Nicholas’ third dunk of the first half. The 6-foot-7 rookie from Pearland, Texas outside of Houston finished the night 8-of-8 from the floor for a career-high 17 points.
“He’s athletic and he’s a high-motor kid so this style of play fits him the best,” DeCuire said. “That’s what we brought him here for is run, make plays, block shots and finish. This is one of the types of games he will look forward to the most.”
The reigning Big Sky champions fell behind by as many as 19 but the margin hovered around 14 for most of the first half. Montana finished the first half on an 8-2 run, then pushed the lead to 63-34 three minutes into the second half.
“All we ever talk about in this building is we have to get off to a good start because they are so good,” Jones said. “When you don’t and you don’t compete, fight and be disciplined, it’s going to be a long night.”
The Griz shot 57.6 percent in the first half in building a 50-29 lead at intermission. After halftime, Montana scored 1.4 points per possession by hitting 21-of-32 from the floor (65.6 percent) to raise the shooting percentage for the game to 61.5 percent. Montana scored 54 points in the paint, most on layups that came from UM’s crisp secondary fast break.
“It was how we built our transition,” DeCuire said. “It was keep these guys out of the paint as much as possible and we clogged up the first drive and had to spread the shooters from there.
“I thought we did a good job of just scrapping and rotating one more time, one more time. Then we got some guys taking some shots that they didn’t really want late clock that they had to take.”
North Dakota has not defeated Montana in 53 years but it’s unlikely most of the previous matchups reached Saturday’s level of domination. The hosts built as big as a 40-point lead before DeCuire emptied his bench.
Even the reserves found rhythm as freshman Norway product Lars Espe hit the second shot of his career, sophomore Trevor Spoja hit his second 3-pointer of the season and freshman 7-footer Admir Besovic converted an old-fashioned 3-point play.
Rorie, Oguine, Akoh and junior Bobby Moorehead took the ever-so-rare seat on the bench simultaneously after the lead swelled to its largest of the night. While watching the string of new experiences from the reserves, Montana’s veterans celebrated on the bench enthusiastically.
Now Montana’s focus shifts to Northern Colorado. The Griz, Montana State — a 76-64 victor over UNC on Thursday — and Idaho State (2-0) are the only three unbeaten teams left in the Big Sky. The Bears posted a sweep of Eastern Washington and Idaho last weekend before losing in Bozeman.
“We have a good team in Northern Colorado coming in here,” Rorie said. “I know they just lost but I know they are still good. They play four guards and they come at you so we will have to guard even better than tonight. I think we will be fine. It is big to have momentum coming off a home win in our conference opener.”
Photos courtesy of Todd Goodrich, UM athletics. All Rights Reserved.