MISSOULA, Montana — When asked if Jerrick Harding is the fastest guard in the Big Sky Conference, Timmy Falls gave pause.
“I guess I had to think about it, but I’ll say yes. He’s the fastest guard in the league besides me,” Falls said with a sly smile.
Less than a week before Falls fielded the question, Harding scored 31 points to lift Weber State to an 87-85 overtime victory over Falls and the Montana Grizzlies in Ogden. Just a day before Falls fielded the question, he was the primary defender on Portland State junior Holland Woods as the styling point guard poured in a career-high 38 points to lift PSU to an 88-81 victory over the Griz in Portland.
“He played a pretty good game, I guess,” Falls said when asked about Woods on the eve of his team hosting Montana State for the 300th matchup between old rivals.. “I think our fouls gave him momentum. It is frustrating but we have to move past it and improve more.
“I guarantee I and we will do much better next time.”
The confidence of Falls seems to never falter these days. It’s what has made him one of the most exciting players on the Griz roster, one of the fan favorites among the Dahlberg Arena faithful and a pivotal lynchpin for a Montana team that is in the driver’s seat in its quest of a third straight Big Sky Conference championship.
And it’s also a welcome change for the mercurial UM junior. His first two years in Missoula were defined by his sometimes spectacular and other times sporadic play. And when he couldn’t find his groove on the court, his emotions would boil over, leading to arguments with officials, critical turnovers and sporadic playing time.
This season, when Falls stays out of foul trouble, he is a catalyst for a Griz team that enters Thursday night’s matchup against Weber State in Missoula in first place. Montana is looking to avenge the loss at Weber last month while becoming the first team in the league to win 11 conference games. And Falls will likely draw Harding again, trying to slow down WSU’s recently-minted all-time leader in career points and the leading scorer in the conference (24.8 points per game) during his senior season.
“Timmy does a great job of slashing and finding people and that’s been a big thing helping us because people are going to key off my shooting, so that’s huge,” UM senior guard Kendal Manuel last month. “He is also our No. 1 on-ball defender and one of our primary ball handlers. He’s very important to everything we do.”
Coming out of Dublin High School in the Bay Area, Falls was a two-star recruit who also held offers from San Jost State and Weber State. As a freshman, he showed flashes of a play-maker with elite court vision and an uncanny ability to make unorthodox, highlight-reel passes. But he also showed signs of a player that could become consumed by the emotions of a game.
As sophomore, Falls played 20 minutes a game and even earned eight starts on a stacked Griz team featuring five seniors, including the star backcourt of Ahmaad Rorie and Michael Oguine. Falls averaged 4.7 points and 2.2 assists per game. He shot 38.1 percent from the floor, 34.7 percent from the 3-point line and 76.5 percent from the free throw line.
But he was up and down again, including not being present for a game with the team on their trip to Mexico during the non-conference. And he sometimes battled with officials or turnovers or both.
This season, Falls is still the sparkplug facilitator and instigating on-ball defender the Griz covet. He still commits a sporadic turnover or argues vehemently about a questionable foul call. The biggest difference this season for the junior is that once the moment ends, he moves on. And it doesn’t effect his play in near the same fashion it has in past. At times , it fuels impressive stretches of gamesmanship.
“Coming off my hand injury the beginning of the year, I wasn’t really confident with the ball,” said Falls, who suffered a broken hand during UM’s preseason practices, an injury that cost him a spot in his starting lineup the first four games of the season. “I really struggled with my shot at the beginning of the season.
“But Trav (UM head coach Travis DeCuire) really talked to me that I don’t need to score 20, 15 points per game. I just need to play my ass off on defense and shoot the shots that are open. I just took that to heart, shot open shots and I’ve produced more.”
Falls converted 26-of-66 (39 percent), including 5-of-19 from beyond the arc. He missed 10 of his first 12 shots of the year before his hand fully healed.
During Montana’s ascent to the top of the Big Sky, Falls’ shooting splits have been measurable but not elite. Including the Weber State game, Montana has given up lofty point totals to Harding, Woods, Montana State senior point guard Harald Frey (career-high 37 points), Eastern Washington junior wing Jacob Davison (34 points) and Idaho senior combo guard Trevon Allen (career-high 36 points).
Yet UM won all but the game at Portland State during that stretch. And Falls’ emotional consistency has been an underrated factor in Montana’s quest for a three-peat.
“I think the biggest thing with Timmy is he struggled with some personal stuff last year,” said Montana associate head coach Chris Cobb, a Bay Area native himself who was crucial in luring Falls to Missoula. “And he’s always been a guy who searches for perfection. When things are going really good, he’s as good as it gets. He lights this place (Dahlberg Arena) on fire.
“And when he’s not good, it’s someone we talk to constantly about how you handle refs, how you handle a missed shot, how you handle someone making a tough shot against you. For him, it’s been constantly something we have talked about. And knowing this year that we can’t take him back out and put Michael Oguine or Ahmaad Rorie or Bobby Moorehead into the game. Timmy is here, he is what it is and he is who we want to be one of our guys.”
In Montana’s first matchup against Portland State — the Griz drilled the short-handed Vikings, 85-70, in Missoula on January 13 — Falls shut down Woods. He missed six of his first seven shots and finished 3-of-9 from the floor. He was 1-of-5 from beyond the arc on a seven-point night. But his on-ball defense on Woods along with his offensive pace and his impressive passing skills helped spark a Montana offense that scored its second-most points to that point of the season.
After the game, Falls credited Cobb for giving him the confidence to play through miniscule things like missed shots and ticky tack foul calls.
“Coach Cobb, he always tells me, you don’t have to make shots every night because you bring something else to the table,” Falls said. “If my shots aren’t falling or I’m not doing well offensively, I just try to play my ass off on defense and get my teammates the ball that are shooting well that night.”
This season, Falls is shooting 41.7 percent from the floor and 36 percent from beyond the arc. He is 13-of-15 from the free throw line in league play and is averaging 7.2 points per game in Big Sky games.
But it’s his play as of late — he’s scored in double figures in six of the last nine, including a stretch of five straight — both scoring and keeping his head, has been an x-factor the Griz.
Montana hopes that continues against Harding and the visiting Wildcats Thursday night in Missoula.
“Timmy is a great kid,” Cobb said. “He has a great heart. And he loves this program. You can look at him and have a perception of who he is because of the tattoos and he plays with so much emotion but you don’t see how much he loves the program. When he knows he needs to do it, he’s going to do his absolute best to try to.”