Game Recap

Griz find spark, defeat Sac State on the road


Before the Grizzlies tried to snap out of an offensive funk that has cost Montana four close losses in Big Sky Conference play, Travis DeCuire tried to inspire his young team.

During shoot around in California’s capital city before UM set to play Sacramento State, Montana’s seventh-year head basketball coach emphasized to his players the talent his past Big Sky championship teams have had. He also put a high priority on talking about the unselfishness it took to hang a banner or advance to the Big Dance.

DeCuire used examples like Ahmaad Rorie, a former national-level recruit at point guard who started his career at Oregon. Sure, Rorie could’ve averaged more than 20 points per game. But he sacrificed scoring to help lead Montana to the NCAA Tournament as a junior and a senior.

On Thursday night at the Nest, Montana showed patience and unselfishness, two developments that helped the Grizzlies break through.

DeCuire’s squad was efficient offensively, elite from the free throw line, the best yet this season on the glass and selfless offensively. Each factor helped Montana to a 78-66 win at Sac State.

“Our heads were in the right places,” DeCuire told Riley Corcoran on the Grizzly Radio Network after the game. “We did some things in practice we knew we needed to emphasize and this is really the first game we were able to sustain. We’ve shown signs but I think everyone in this game was focused on winning and not necessarily scoring to get the win.”

Montana sophomore forward Kyle Owens (0) rises for a shot at the rim vs. Sacramento State Thursday/by Sacramento State Athletics

The point total is the highest of the season against a Division I opponent for the Grizzlies. Sophomore Kyle Owens poured in a career-high 22 points, including drilling a season-best three 3-pointers and tallying 14 points before halftime.

Robby Beasley III knocked down all 10 of his free throw attempts to remain perfect from the stripe this season on the way to 17 points on a night where UM hit 26 of its 30 freebies. Brandon Whitney, Beasley’s fellow freshman backcourt mate, added 14 while knocking down eight of 10 from the charity stripe.

And Mack Anderson had his best game in nearly a calendar year by coming off the bench to score 12 points as the Grizzlies earned a ridiculous 55-10 advantage in bench points.

All of it helped a program that has won three Big Sky regular season titles and advanced to the last two NCAA Tournaments look once again like one of the league’s premier programs after an early stretch in which UM made a habit of losing in heartbreaking fashion.

“The offense we ran is new,” DeCuire said. “We put it in a week ago. We just hadn’t had any time to get comfortable with it. This was the first time we said we are going to stick with it. We were able to work the kinks out.”

Montana has made a habit of surrendering leadings, whether the advantages were earned early, late or both. Sac State jolted out to an 8-2 lead to begin the action on Thursday only to see Montana answer with a 16-0 run capped by Owens’ layup with 9:28 left in the first half.

The Griz lead swelled to 10 and stayed at eight, 33-25, by halftime. But out of the break, Montana gave up a 10-2 run as the Hornets tied the game at 35.

UM held second half leads in a pair of one-point losses to open Big Sky play at Southern Utah in early December. The Griz blew an 8-point lead in a two-point loss to Northern Colorado in the Big Sky home opener in Missoula.

Montana sophomore guard Josh Vazquez (3) looks to create vs. Sacramento State Thursday/by Sacramento State Athletics

Last weekend, the Griz held a 27-point lead in what ended up a 67-56 win over NAU only to blow a 17-point lead in a 62-58 loss to the Lumberjacks two days later. That might’ve been rock bottom for these Grizzlies as Montana ended the game without a single point over the final five minutes, 38 seconds, allowing an inexperienced and short-handed Lumberjack team to close the game on a 12-0 run.

With the score tied less than four minutes into the second half, the Griz did not fold on Thursday night. Instead, Montana’s bench went to work, buoying the Grizzlies to their third Big Sky win and their eighth straight win over Sac State overall. Other than Whitney, the Griz starters combined for just nine points.

But Owens, who came off the bench for the first time this season, led an assault by the UM reserves to help the Griz gain their first bit of momentum in conference play so far this season. Montana entered the game scoring 60 points in league play. Sac State entered the game allowing 58.4 points per Big Sky contest. The 78 points were not only UM’s most against a D-I opponent but also the most Sac State has allowed all year.

“They started the second half the same way they started the game,” DeCuire said. “We subbed and instead of calling a timeout, being emotional about it, we went to the bench. The guys who were sitting there were ready to go. The guys who came in gave us a different look and they were ready to go.”

Another key stat for Montana: the Griz committed a season-low nine turnovers while dishing out 13 assists. The Montana guards combined for 49 points.

“The biggest thing for us is we didn’t play big. We played three guards most of the game. That allows us to spread the floor and made us better in a lot of areas, including making us hard to guard.”

Perhaps the biggest spark of the game came from Anderson. Although Owens came off the bench for the first time and Beasley has been a starter at times during his true freshman season, Anderson’s 12 points proved to be the biggest boost. The Bozeman native made all five of his field goal attempts, nearly matching his career high of 15 points set last February in UM’s win over Idaho.

“He’s a Griz all the way through,” DeCuire said. “The toughness, the readiness, he’s about it. That’s the thing I gave these guys a speech about today: when we have been good and we’ve accomplished the things that we put in front of us, we have had five guys who have been about things that are meaningful to us as a program.

Montana freshman guard Robby Beasley III (5) fills the lane vs. Sacramento State Thursday/by Sacramento State Athletics

“I’m just not sure we all know what that is right now. We are trying to define that. Usually, we have upper classmen to teach us. But guys are learning. And Mack knows what that is. So he stays ready.

“When he gets opportunities, he’s going to try to make the most of them. Even when he doesn’t play well, he stays ready to go. He’s coachable. He’s a phenomenal teammate. When you are all about the teammate guys need to be around, when you are all about the W, when you are about we and not me, good things happen for you. Mack has been waiting his turn.”

The Griz now make the quick turnaround to play the Hornets again at noon on Saturday.

“We have to keep doing what we did today,” DeCuire said. “There’s a couple of things we have to tweak. We know there are areas we can perform better and I don’t know if that necessarily comes down to execution but more we had some shots that didn’t go in.

“We just have to keep plugging away and keep our minds in the right place. If we can do that, we can be pretty good.”

Photos courtesy of Sacramento State Athletics. All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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