Game Recap

Griz go cold as NAU wins in Missoula to earn split


MISSOULA, Montana — Josh Vazquez’s contested 3-point try from the corner fell well short, summing up an afternoon where Montana struggled to score once again.

For the fifth time in six Big Sky Conference contests, the Grizzlies came down to the wire against a league foe. And for the fourth time during conference play, Montana came up short.

Saturday’s 62-58 home loss to Northern Arizona was particularly excruciating. Less than 48 hours after Montana posted a 67-56 win over NAU, the Griz built a 15-point halftime lead and led by as many as 17 points in the second half.

NAU shaved the gap to one point with 11 minutes, 36 seconds left but Travis DeCuire took a time out, leading to a 6-0 Montana run. Brandon Whitney’s last field goal with 5:32 left extended the Montana advantage to 58-50.

The Griz did not score again as Nick Mains, Carson Towt and Cam Shelton carried the Lumberjacks on a 12-0 run to finish the game and help NAU earn the weekend split.

“It’s a roller coast ride, fellas,” UM seventh-year head coach Travis DeCuire said on a zoom call to about half a dozen reporters. “For stretches, we played very good ball on both sides of the ball. We defended, we rebounded, we held them to one shot. The ball was moving very well on offense.

“Then we lost that for a stretch. We got it back, got it going again and lost it again. It has been the tale of two halves for us here, really.

“But at the end of the day, you just have to be tougher when it matters most. You get to that eight, nine-minute mark, every loose ball, every long rebound, every extra pass and taking care of the ball gets highlighted a lot more. Those things start to cost you because you give your opponent momentum. That’s what happened today.” (WATCH)

Montana sophomore forward Kyle Owens (0) works for a layup vs Northern Arizona/by Tommy Martino – Griz Communications

Mains, NAU’s third leading scorer, did not play on Thursday. Saturday, he buried his first three 3-point attempts and hit 6-of-9 shots overall on the way to a team-high 17 points off the bench. Towt, a 6-foot-7, 225-pound redshirt freshman with promising strength, overcame taking a hard spill to score 13 points. And Shelton, the seventh-leading scorer in the country entering the weekend, scored 13 points but it took him 19 shots to get there as NAU moved to 3-4 in Big Sky play.

Montana opened up league play the first weekend of December by dropping a pair of one-point losses at Southern Utah. The Griz led late in the second half in each game.

Bodie Hume’s conversion with one second left lifted Northern Colorado to a 64-62 win in Missoula as the Griz returned to league play after nearly a month off. Montana’s first league win came on the morning of Monday, January 4 as freshman Josh Bannan hit a 15-foot jumper with 4.9 seconds left to help UM to a 56-54 win.

On Thursday, UM built a lead as big as 27 points and hung on for the 11-point victory. Saturday, the Griz came up on the wrong side once again.

“We are learning that we have to finish off possessions because the games we’ve lost have been by one possession,” Whitney said. “We are trying to stay together, get together and finish it off.”

Montana’s 2-4 start is unchartered territory under DeCuire, a head coach that won 75.2 percent of his Big Sky games during his first six seasons.

“It’s hard, man, it’s hard, especially being up by so much and losing the lead and losing the game,” Derrick Carter-Hollinger said. “It hurts because we know we can beat that team. We know what we could’ve done but the fact that we didn’t get it done just hurts.”

Scoring has been the biggest issue for these Grizzlies. At times, a roster featuring nine newcomers and a rotation featuring three freshmen playing significant minutes moves the ball efficiently and executes DeCuire’s offense fluidly.

But the Griz also have endured a rash of long scoring droughts. UM ranks last in the Big Sky during league play in scoring offense at 64.4 points per game. Senior post Michael Steadman leads the team in scoring per game in Big Sky games at 12.6 points per game, which is 18th in the conference. Sophomore Kyle Owens is averaging 12 per game, which ranks 22nd and the only other Griz in the top 30.

Montana freshman forward Josh Bannan (13) looks to create vs. Northern Arizona/by Tommy Martino – Griz Communications

“We just want to get the best shot we can at the end of the day,” Whitney said when asked about the length of Montana’s possessions and the pace of play. “If it has to take that long, then it does. We would rather get it earlier in the shot clock.”

“Defenses make adjustments and they made some,” DeCuire added when asked about NAU moving to a 1-3-1 zone. “We made the cross-court pass twice for threes and instead of rotating to the rim, they stayed up on the shooter. The lay-ups were there, we just kept trying to cross court it.

“We have to get better at making adjustments and reading and reacting to defenses.”

Montana made eight 3-pointers (in 16 attempts) marking the third time the Griz have made that many triples against a league opponent, including the second game in a row. UM went 8-of-20 against NAU Thursday. Whitney, who scored a career-high 22 to lead all scorers, hit four of his five tries from beyond the arc.

“Down the stretch, it came down to execution on both ends,” Whitney said. “Defense and offense. We just weren’t executing on offense. And offensive boards killed us at the end.”

Montana sophomore guard Josh Vazquez (1) drives the lane vs. Northern Arizona/by Todd Goodrich – Griz Communications

But none of that shooting (Vazquez also went 2-of-6 from deep) came to the surface during UM’s cold streak to end the game.

Montana plays at Sacramento State next week. The Hornets are 2-0 in league play (sweeping Idaho the first weekend of December) and 4-1 overall.

“You learn from experience and I think you learn more from losses than you do from wins,” DeCuire said. “If we win that game, I don’t know that our film session is going to be as valuable as it is after a loss.

“It’s perspective. We are giving them an opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t. Hopefully, the right things stick and you figure it out sooner than later.”

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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