MISSOULA, Montana — Playing in the first Monday game of what is sure to be a marathon of a Big Sky Conference race, the undersized and under-experienced Grizzlies found themselves playing right into Sacramento State’s hands.
The stout, physical Hornets entered the opening weekend of league play with a Big Sky-best 7-2 non-conference record thanks in large part to one of the slowest paces of play and one of the stingiest scoring defenses in the country.
And on Monday night Sac State lulled Montana into a plodding, physical game for the duration of the first half at Dahlberg Arena.
The Hornets held the Grizzlies scoreless for the final five minutes of the first half, ending the period on a 12-4 run to take a 27-20 lead into the locker room. Montana answered that defensive intensity with improved rotations and communication to begin the second half on a 9-0 run before the two teams swung back and forth.
Still, Sac State sophomore James Bridges drilled a contested 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock to give the Hornets a 49-48 lead with 58 seconds to play.
A frantic final minute came to a head as Montana senior Kendal Manuel knocked down four straight free throws to the delight of the 3,846 on hand to lift the Grizzlies to a gritty 52-50 win.
“This group is dialed in right now,” Montana sixth-year head coach Travis DeCuire said. “Two nights back-to-back (Montana beat Northern Arizona 79-71 on Saturday) like a team that knows how to finish games. A week ago, we struggled with that. I think we are going up a little bit and hopefully that can continue.”
The victory lifts the youthful two-time defending league champions — DeCuire plays three true freshman in his seven-man rotation current — to 2-0 in Big Sky play, 6-1 at home and 6-7 overall.
“Sac State is probably the best defensive team in the league and year in and year out, it’s a grind,” DeCuire said. “For us, we have to figure out how to win games when the ball is not going in the basket and we aren’t playing well offensively.
“To shoot 33 percent from the floor and come out and win is a sign of growth.”
In a game that featured 11 ties and 16 lead changes, Manuel came up big the final 11 minutes of the game. The senior from Billings shook off a 1-of-8 shooting start that included five straight misses from beyond the arc to score 11 points after halftime.
Manuel’s two free throws with 39 seconds left helped Montana retake the lead after Bridges’ 3-pointer, 50-49, with 39 seconds left. Sac guard Bryce Fowler got a good look on a sweet in-bounds play on the ensuing possession but missed. UM junior Timmy Falls missed the front end of one-and-one free throw to give Sac the ball with 14 seconds left.
Sac State senior Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa, who stripped Griz all-league forward Sayeed Pridgett to set up Bridges’ 3-pointer, drew a foul with five seconds left. But he missed the first of two free throws. The Griz took possession with the score tied 50-50 with 2.5 seconds left.
Sac State decided to trap Manuel at the top of the key but the Hornets trapped him too hard. Manuel, a 93-percent free throw shooter entering the game, swished the first attempt from the stripe. He tried to miss the second but made it accidentally.
“I feel like I’ve played enough college basketball to kind of calm myself down, especially in those type of situations, I feel comfortable,” Manuel said. “I actually went over to Coach Trav and said, ‘Should I miss this because there was two seconds left and if they touched it, they would have to heave it across the court. Either way, it was going to be a 3-point shot. Travis told me to miss it and I tried to miss it and it still went in (laughs).”
“It’s crazy how that happens,” DeCuire added. “They have a great free throw shooter trying to make free throws who misses a tough one and we come down here and we are trying to miss and we make it.”
Sac’s William FitzPatrick missed a last-second heave after the buzzer and the Griz had a pivotal Big Sky victory over a team that has defeated DeCuire-coached Griz teams four times in the previous five seasons.
“Every time we play Sac State, it’s a grind,” Manuel said. “They rebound the ball hard and they play tough basketball and they always defend. We knew coming into this game, it was going to be a grind and it would come down to the last possession. I’m glad we ended up on top.”
Sac State employs the league’s biggest lineup, which starts with 6-foot-9 all-conference center Josh Patton roaming the paint. Fowler is an interesting matchup as a 6-foot-6 combo guard that plays on the ball more often than not.
Montana forward Yagi Selcuk did not play Monday for undisclosed reasons. UM sophomore Mack Anderson played just one minute. And true freshman Derrick Carter-Hollinger played just six.
Instead, the Griz leaned heavily on senior Jared Samuelson, a 6-foot-7 graduate transfer from Rocky Mountain College who started and is ending his career with the Griz. He played a season-high 30 minutes (his previous high was 18 against North Dakota) and he scored a season-high 17 points. Samuelson hit a pair of 3-pointers in the opening minutes of the second half to spark Montana’s 9-0 run. And he finished in the paint against Patton twice to keep Montana in the battle.
“We just had to mentally prep for them, protect the paint, that was the goal,” Samuelson said. “They are really big, really solid, really physical and we made sure to crash the boards, box them out and hold them to a low total of points in the paint.”
Samuelson also helped the Griz hold Patton to 10 points on 4-of-10 shooting. Sac shot 32 percent after halftime and committed nine turnovers in each half. Five of Sac’s turnovers came in the opening five minutes of the second half.
“We were in all the right spots, we did a better job of fighting touches, our rotation was good,” DeCuire said. “We made it difficult on them like they did to us. I was hoping the dam would break but it never really did. It was a grind all the way through.”
Pridgett missed 10 of his first 13 shots but made four of five down the stretch to finish with 14 points to go with eight rebounds. Manuel scored 11 of his 13 points after halftime.
Montana’s first game of 2020 comes Thursday at Southern Utah. SUU junior Dre Marin hit a buzzer-beater to lift the Thunderbirds to an 83-81 win at Portland State on Monday night. SUU is 2-0 in league play, 8-4 overall.
“Being 2-0, this is huge because you gotta win at home,” DeCuire said. “I tell these guys, you get one point for a home win and two for a road win, depending on who it is, three. And to me, it’s three points if it’s a team that is going to finish in the top half. We don’t know who that is right now so they are all worth three.
“This is a league where it’s hard to win on the road. Travel is hard. You have to find a way and you have to take care of your business at home if you are every going to finish in the top half.”