Montana did not look young or inexperienced or scared in the first 23 minutes of its season opener at Stanford.
Instead, the Cardinal of the Pac 12 looked timid and nervous while the Griz were the aggressors. Then a familiar demon raised its head and thwarted another upset bid for the Grizzlies at a Power 5 team.
Stanford led 40-38 a few minutes into the second half when Montana went cold. The Griz forced shots, did not hold off defenders in their half-court offense and allowed Stanford to go on a 26-2 run that flipped the game and helped the Cardinal cruise to a 73-62 victory at the Farm on Wednesday night.
The hosts forced nine turnovers and did not allow Montana to score for five minutes and 40 seconds during a 20-0 run that put Stanford up 60-38 with 9:48 to play. UM point guard Josh Vasquez, one of three true freshmen playing in their first college games for the Griz, hit a long two-point jump shot to halt the run for exactly one possession. But Daejon Davis dunked on the other end to spark six straight for the Cardinal as the hosts push the lead to 66-40, the largest of the night.
Since Travis DeCuire took over as Montana’s head coach six seasons ago, the Grizzlies have been no strangers to playing teams from the Power 5 conferences or the Pac 12. But shooting droughts have doomed UM more often than not, costing the Griz second-half leads against Stanford, Washington, Ole Miss and Oregon just in the last three years. Scoreless spells also doomed UM in each of the last two NCAA Tournaments in first-round losses to Michigan.
On Wednesday, the Cardinal had hardly a talent advantage despite the fact that eight Griz players were making their UM debuts. And Montana led for 17 of the first 20 minutes of the game behind inspired efforts from rookies and veterans alike.
But during the scoreless stretch, the Griz stopped defending with the same ferocity, giving up easy buckets to the Cardinal while forcing shots offensively in a brutal stretch foreign to a team that won 52 games over the previous two seasons.
“We are young, we knew and we have a lot of inexperience on the floor,” DeCuire told Voice of the Grizzlies Riley Corcoran on his post-game interview on the Grizzly Sports Network. “We had that stretch where we weren’t doing a lot to help ourselves. We had them for a stretch but we weren’t executing on defense and there was a point in time where they were shooting 70 percent from the floor in the second half.
“A lot of it is our offense effecting our defense. We struggled to get good shots, we struggled to get the ball in the basket.”
D.J. Carter-Hollinger, a freshman who is only 17 years old, had a stellar debut, particularly in the first 20 minutes of the game. He scored 12 to keep the score close until early in the first half, making his first four field goals and four of his first five free throws. He finished with 15 points and six rebounds in his debut.
Sayeed Pridgett, one of two seniors and one of four returning rotation players for the Griz, scored six of his points after Stanford’s extended run. The senior headliner finished with team-highs of 17 points and 10 rebounds. He also dished out six assists but committed six of UM’s 17 turnovers.
“I really would’ve liked to get Sayeed more shots in the first half,” DeCuire said. “I thought we had an opportunity to pull away. To play as well as we felt like we were playing, especially on the glass and our activity defensively.
“To play as well as we were playing and not have a lead at half, I thought that was difficult for a young group. And then they made their run and we struggled to play for that because don’t have the guys on the floor who have experienced it.”
Vazquez, a high IQ and highly competitive point guard from California, made his first career start as a Griz, scoring 11 points, grabbing five rebounds and turning the ball over three times in 37 minutes of action. He finished 4-of-11 from the floor, including 2-of-7 from beyond the 3-point arc.
During the final minutes of the game, DeCuire played Vazquez, Carter-Hollinger, true freshman wing Kyle Owens (who also made his first career start on Wednesday) and redshirt freshman guard Eddie Egun. That group along with Pridgett closed the game on a 14-0 run.
“There’s no ego in that freshmen group and they are just playing,” DeCuire said. “The floor was spread. There was some activity. And they defended for a stretch and that led to some transition.”
Montana returns home for a Sunday matinee against Montana State-Northern. DeCuire hopes his fresh-faced team can move forward quickly.
“Tonight, signs of what we were capable of,” DeCuire said.
“We are going to have to weather a couple of storms here before we have a chance to develop a few scars and get through…I just want to see we are getting better every time out but the schedule gets tougher so it’s going to be tough to see that without going back and watching it on film. I don’t know if the score is going to tell us every time out but we will get there.”