BOISE, Idaho — For the first 18 minutes of their debut in Boise, the Montana Grizzlies looked like a well-oiled machine on a mission. But Marcus Graves was not about to go out without a fight.
Montana built a 20-point lead late in the first half in its quarterfinals game in the Big Sky Tournament. Playing without senior center Jamar Akoh and with Donaven Dorsey and Sayeed Pridgett both in early foul trouble, Montana used its fastest lineup to whip the ball, notching 11 assists on its first 15 made field goals during a break-neck first half.
But Graves, Sacramento State’s second-team All-Big Sky point guard, refused to let his career end in a blowout. He hit one of his five 3-pointers during an 8-0 Hornets’ run to end the first half before carrying Sac down the stretch. The southpaw scored in every way imaginable, pouring in 20 of his game-high 30 points to help Sac make what was a 20-point deficit into a two-possession game.
The defending Big Sky champion Grizzlies have been here before. Montana was down at halftime in all three of its BSC Tournament wins a year ago. On Thursday, senior point guard Ahmaad Rorie found the soft spots in Sac State’s zone, senior Michael Oguine ran without reigns and used his energy at both ends to set the pace and Montana held off the feisty Hornets in a 79-73 victory at CenturyLink Arena.
“Sometimes, you feel a lot better when you have guys who have been here before,” UM head coach Travis DeCuire said after moving his team into the semifinals of the conference tournament for the fourth time in his five seasons at the helm for his alma mater. “These guys have been going to war all year long. It’s been a long season, a lot of adversity. I think that the grit that the adversity creates paid off for us today.
“Marcus Graves showed up. Senior, competitor. But we had four guys in double figures, 21 assists. That tells the tale of how we shared the ball. And that feeds into our defensive concepts of playing together.”
Oguine, one of the most memorable players in Montana history because of his athleticism and magnetic persona, sprinted his way to 15 points during fast-paced first half. He made all four of his steals after halftime as UM forced 15 turnovers. And Oguine proved once again how he can be the league’s best tone setter on the way to a team-high 19 points.
“This is what our season really comes down to: these three games in the conference tournament,” Oguine said. “This will be our last one. You have to leave it all out there on the floor. You don’t want to have any regrets when it’s over. Getting to a good start was key for me and playing with passion and energy, when you do that, you are going to like the results.”
Rorie, a first-team All-Big Sky selection for the second season in a row and the player DeCuire calls “our iron man”, again showed an elite ability to pick his spots even with Sac State’s high-energy defense anchored by ferocious junior shot blocker Josh Patton swarming the Griz. Rorie hit mid-range jumpers in the middle of the zone on three consecutive possessions to keep the Hornets at bay. His final jumper stretched the lead to 70-59 with 3:17 left after Sac cut the gap to as little as four points.
“We had a heart-to-heart as a group and Ahmaad mentioned that we needed to start more games more aggressively,” DeCuire said. “The best way to do that is to put speed on the floor.”
Dorsey, a former Washington transfer who sat out the last two seasons recovering from surgery to remove a tumor from his hip, gave Montana a deadly outside threat during the middle of the conference schedule. But down the stretch, he’s struggled with back spasms. Thursday, he played three minutes, hitting his only 3-point attempt.
Pridgett has been a whirling dervish as an unorthodox, slashing power forward that has taken Akoh’s touches in the front-court. Against Sac, he again proved to be a nightmare matchups, slicing and dicing his way to 16 points on 8-of-9 shooting.
Kendal Manuel, the co-Newcomer of the Year and the Big Sky’s Top Reserve, hit a pair of first-half 3-pointers, causing Sac State head coach Brian Katz to switch into a zone. Even then, the Oregon State transfer made the extra pass time and again on the way to seven assists to go with 11 points.
UM had 21 assists on 31 made baskets.
“The change we’ve been through has changed our style of play and changed our roles,” DeCuire said. “Going into the Sac State game last week, we settled in. I made one last adjustment and everyone accepted their roles, where they were. I think you are seeing the results of that.”
Sacramento State hit 12 3-pointers in the first game, a win over Northern Arizona in the first round. Sac entered the tournament making 5.5 3-pointers per game, the lowest total in the league by two full triples. Thursday, Sac missed six of its first seven shots from beyond the arc but finished 11-of-25 from beyond the arc.
“I think we have been an underrated shooting team all year, honestly,” Sac State sophomore Drew Fowler after hitting four of his five attempts from deep during a 17-point night. “We’ve been inconsistent but the last two games have showed we are a good shooting team.”
Graves hit a 3-pointer with eight minutes left to cut UM’s lead to 62-56 and cap an 11-0 run. Montana held a 17-point lead thanks to consecutive 3s from Rorie and Bobby Moorehead, who led the Griz with nine rebounds. Graves scored seven points in the final minute of the game, including a 3-pointer that cut it to five and a 3-point play that cut it to four.
After losing his season a year ago to back surgery, Graves clawed back to lead the Hornets during a campaign that ends with a 15-16 record.
“I just wanted to be aggressive,” Graves said. “That’s what I’ve been doing my whole career. I gave everything I had to this program. And that’s how I wanted to go out today if I was going to go out.”
Montana will get a chance to keep marching toward a second consecutive NCAA Tournament berth with a 5:30 p.m. semifinal matchup against the winner of Weber State and Portland State. The Griz swept the Wildcats and were swept by the Vikings during the regular-season.
“We are going to make them sleep in the gym,” DeCuire joked. “No, they will watch the second half. We will get them out of here, get some food, get treatment, go to bed. They need to be in the bed before the sun goes down.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.