MISSOULA — The journey has played out nothing like Bobby Moorehead expected it would.
And the Griz senior stalwart would have it no other way.
The 6-foot-7 forward came to the University of Montana as a prolific scorer out of Tacoma powerhouse Stadium High. He was the Washington 4A Narrows League MVP after averaging 26.5 points per game his senior year of high school in one of the West Coast’s recruiting hotbeds.
As a true freshman for the Grizzlies, Moorehead earned the nickname “Big Shot Bob”, an homage to clutch shooter Robert Horry of NBA playoff legend. Moorehead’s ability to drill big 3-pointers — he hit eight in a single game during a road win at Idaho State that season — and his productivity overall (he hit 48 triples as a rookie) seemed to foreshadow a career that would evolve into becoming Montana’s next great shooter.
Instead, an influx of a quartet of talented transfers including three from the Pac 12, the progression of the UM program under head coach Travis DeCuire and a sophomore shooting slump that cut into his minutes forced Moorehead to evolve into something completely different.
Moorehead has scored in double figures five times during his final season at UM. He is averaging 5.1 points per game. But he’s also the front-runner for Big Sky Conference Defensive Player of the Year honors, the top one-on-one defender for the league’s toughest defensive team. And he’s fully embraced his evolution.
“It’s rare that you have someone that owns that, that looks forward to that job,” DeCuire said. “That’s the biggest thing because there’s been times when someone else might’ve been a good matchup. But he will use all of his energy on that end where a lot of guys aren’t willing to do that. A lot of guys like to rest on defense to be productive on offense. Bobby has made that sacrifice for this team and that makes my job easy.”
Once upon a time, Moorehead saw his role as spotting up in the corner and being ready to shoot when his opportunity came. Now every night out, Moorehead draws the best perimeter scorer on the opposing team in a league flush with prolific talent. Moorehead accepts each challenge willingly.
“It’s a job he owns as a senior,” DeCuire said. “As a freshman, it was a task. Bobby was a scorer in high school. All freshman when they show up think they can score at this level. And he made shots early in his career. I think it was difficult for him to grasp how important it was to defend to win. But he’s a very intelligent basketball player. It didn’t take very long for him to figure it out.”
One night, he might be guarding sharpshooting Montana State stud Tyler Hall, a jump-shooting NBA hopeful who is only an inch shorter than Moorehead. The next night out, he might be chasing around Weber State mighty mite Jerrick Harding, a 6-foot lefty with endless energy and one of the most unorthodox scorers in college basketball. In between, he has drawn assignments like slashing Eastern Washington jumping jack Jacob Davison and silky-smooth Idaho combo guard Trevon Allen. He has welcomed each challenge.
“Not at all,” Moorehead said with a smile when asked if this is how he expected his career to play out. “When I was a senior in high school, scoring was what I had to do. But when you get here, you realize you are not the best guy here. Roles change and you have to adapt to what you need to do if you want to play.
“I think defense is mostly a mindset for me. I’m not the quickest guy, not the most athletic. To be able to guard, mentally I have to be locked in. I just had to change the way I play. That earned me a lot more minutes and kept me on the floor.”
Montana entered this season as the defending Big Sky champions and the preseason favorites to repeat thanks to a roster featuring Moorehead and three senior teammates. The team is so talented, Pac 12 transfers Kendal Manuel and Donaven Dorsey came off the bench for the first half of conference play and Manuel still does.
But Montana stumbled early, losing three straight Division I games during its 7-4 non-conference slate and again in league play. In Montana’s fourth game in eight days, the Griz lost 77-74 in overtime to Portland State, watching their 20-game home winning streak snapped in the process.
Their next time out, the Griz lost again, this time falling 78-71 at Eastern Washington. Before Montana’s game at Northern Colorado — one of the top contenders in the league — Moorehead texted DeCuire to ask if he could guard UNC star guard Jordan Davis. The league’s leading scorer entered the contest averaging nearly 29 points per game in conference play and more than 25 points per outing overall.
Davis, the Russell Westbrook of the Big Sky, is a downhill point guard who has one of the top usage rates in the country for Jeff Linder’s squad. Moorehead didn’t flinch, holding the explosive combo guard to 20 points on 7-of-20 shooting in Montana’s 88-64 win, a victory that sparked a 10-game winning streak.
“He has tremendous length and he uses that to his advantage,” Davis said after working for all 23 of his points in UNC’s 74-72 victory over UM in Missoula last month in the rematch between the Big Sky’s top two teams. “And he does a tremendous job of directing those guys to provide some type of help. Any type of finish, he’s the first defender.
“He does an amazing job of using his legs and using the spacing on the floor to talk to his teammates.”
Hall is close to 6-foot-6 depending on the last time he got his haircut. Davison is 6-foot-4 with fluid athleticism. Harding, the former Kansas Gatorade Player of the Year, is one of the most impressive finishers in the West. Davis’ blend of size, speed and explosiveness will land him in the NBA summer league at the very least next season.
No matter the size or speed discrepancies, Moorhead instead focuses on the mental aspect of the game — “Getting locked in and getting my mind right is crucial,” he said — to ensure he’s one of the Big Sky’s biggest nuisances.
“It’s pretty humbling and it’s really hard,” Moorehead admits when asked about his grueling role. “A lot of guys growing up have a lot of people in their ears telling them they are the best throughout their whole lives. That’s why there are not a whole lot of great teams in the country every year. I think for a team to be great, everybody has to put their selfishness and their individual success to the side and put their team success as their goal.”
Moorehead uses his unusual length, keen anticipation and high basketball IQ to beat his opponents to spots, serving as the anchor for Montana’s league-leading defense. The Griz are giving up 68.6 points per game and allowing teams to shoot 43.3 percent, comparable numbers to UM’s numbers on the way to a 15-3 conference mark.
UM senior Michael Oguine, the reigning Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year (even though Moorehead won the John Eaheart Memorial award last year as Montana’s best defender), has a knack for coming up with momentum-changing steals. Montana senior point guard Ahmaad Rorie has solidified himself as one of the top on-ball defenders in the conference. But Moorehead is the lynchpin.
“I think his length is a problem but I think his heart is the biggest factor,” UM associate head coach Chris Cobb, essentially UM’s defensive coordinator, said earlier this season. “He takes a lot of pride in it, if you ask him. All of these guys can score, so out of those guys in the starting lineup, you’ve got four really good scorers.
“Bobby needs to hang his hat on something, and that’s what he hangs his hat on: being able to go in and guard the other team’s best player.”
Stadium High has a more recognizable national imagine than most in America. The castle on North E Street was originally built by the Northern Pacific Railroad Company with the intention of serving as a luxury hotel resembling a French château. Instead, an 1898 fire seven years after its erection caused for 40,000 bricks to be gutted from the building, many of which ended up in Missoula to construct train stations in Western Montana.
In 1999, “10 Things I Hate About You”, a contemporary adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew”, was filmed at Stadium High, debuting Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles to the world.
Although Moorehead didn’t graduate for nearly two decades, he’s constantly heard the references. He considers Ledger one of his favorite actors. And he still loves the place he came from.
“I rep Tacoma hard, love Tacoma,” Moorehead said. “I would love to live there again one day. It’s also getting a little too busy for me now. I came to Missoula just for basketball and I thought, ‘Man, this is a small town, this is going to suck.’ And I love it here now. When I go home, now I’m like, ‘Man, there’s so much traffic. I miss Missoula.’
“Tacoma has this gritty reputation of being a little rough but I think it’s developed a lot over the years. It’s starting to become more hip and cool. I really enjoy it there and I love going home. But Missoula feels like home now too.”
The Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area — although natives like Moorehead and Rorie would never admit the two are one — has produced the most NBA players of any city in the last 10 years. Moorehead acknowledges that explosive scoring guard Jamal Crawford is “the guy” but he favors Avery Bradley, a bulldog who has carved out a reputation as one of the NBA’s toughest defenders.
“He gets after it on the defensive end, so I can resonate with that,” Moorehead said.
When Montana first began recruiting Moorehead, he felt comfortable with the West Coast connections. DeCuire went to Mercer Island High. Former assistants Marlon Stewart and Ken Bone are from Western Washington. And current UM assistant Rachi Wortham is from Tacoma.
“I wasn’t very highly recruited so not a lot of people knew about me,” Moorehead said. “That’s one of the reasons they heard about me was just because Travis had those connections in the area.
“The reason I ultimately came here was (DeCuire) was honest with me. He didn’t promise me I was going to start or score a ton of points. But he promised me that I would have a good experience and if I worked, my hardest, I would contribute to a team that is going to win. I thought that honesty was cool.”
Moorehead hit three 3-pointers in the first college game he ever played, a 74-72 upset win over Boise State in Missoula that doubled as Oguine’s coming out party. That rookie season, he averaged 5.6 points per game, more than he is averaging in his final year in maroon and silver.
As a sophomore, he started for 10 of 32 games, playing just 18 minutes per game (same as his freshman season) due to 32 percent shooting from the floor and 29 percent from beyond the arc.
Before last season, Moorehead remade himself. He averaged career-bests of 7.4 points and 5.1 rebounds as a junior as Montana advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013, an experience that Moorehead describes as a dream come true.
He has given Montana an offensive boost throughout his senior year, his best game coming as UM earned revenge over EWU. Moorehead scored 13 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, hitting 4-of-6 from beyond the arc in the process the Griz earned a 75-74 win. Moorehead, fittingly, also forced Davison into a missed shot on the final possession of the game.
“That’s the Bobby Moorehead we knew he was capable of being all year,” DeCuire said following the win. “There’s streaks to the game and that’s why you have to play it. We know he can make 3-point shots. Just knock em down, get good ones and he’s been doing a great job of choosing good ones. But the fact that he’s tuned in on defense and rebounding helps us win.”
The Griz are closing in on a second straight Big Sky title. Rorie was the preseason Big Sky MVP. Junior Sayeed Pridgett has emerged as one of Rorie’s leading competitors for league MVP, along with Harding, Davis, Hall and MSU point guard Harald Frey.
Oguine added to his endless highlight reel with a momentum-changing alley-oop dunk to swing UM’s senior night. He hit a 3-pointer on the next possession to boost Montana to a 70-54 win over Southern Utah on senior night. On Monday, Oguine put another feather in his cap, dunking his way to 22 points and 11 rebounds in UM’s final home game,a 66-64 win over Northern Arizona.
But Moorehead has been the stalwart and fulcrum point for Montana’s most important element. And as his career has evolved, from sweet-shooting rookie to well-respected stopper, he has never flinched. The experience of embracing selflessness has molded him into the man he is today.
“I have learned so much here from the coaching staff and the people and the support here has been amazing,” Moorehead said.
“I’ve learned so much. I can’t even describe how much it’s meant to me. It’s going to be weird not putting on a Griz uniform next year. Hopefully, I can possibly stay in this community after and be involved with Griz athletics. Either way, I know I will be a Griz for life.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or attributed. All Rights Reserved.