Griz remain driven with second half of Big Sky play upcoming


MISSOULA — During a mid-week practice leading up to a rivalry game ripe with redemptive possibilities, Travis DeCuire refuses to be satisfied.

Montana’s fourth-year head men’s basketball coach watches as his starting five — a group that includes four juniors and a senior — execute the half-court trap the Griz plan on using to slow down Montana State star scorer Tyler Hall as UM seeks revenge after its first loss to MSU in 14 matchupss.

The rabid Grizzlies rotate with precision and close in on the scout team player pretending to be Hall, a prolific shooter who has already scored 1,705 points in his two-plus seasons in Bozeman.

Montana executed the trap to perfection six consecutive times. DeCuire, with an unwavering intensity in his eyes, blew the whistle sharply.

“Run it again! We will not allow him to beat us again!”

Last February in Bozeman, Hall put on a show in front of the first sellout crowd in more than a decade. The slick shooting guard drilled seven 3-pointers and 11 of his 13 shots on the way to 37 points as MSU snapped a 13-game losing streak to the Grizzlies.

Montana forward Bobby Moorehead (24) defending Montana State guard Tyler Hall (3)/by Brooks Nuanez

Earlier this month in Bozeman with UM junior Bobby Moorehead primarily shadowing him, Hall could not shake loose. The Bobcats played a near-perfect first half but squandered a nine-point lead as freshman Timmy Falls’ 3-pointer at the first half buzzer sent the action at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse to the locker room with the score tied.

After halftime, Montana used a similar formula to smother Hall, standout point guard Harald Frey and the Bobcats on the way to a 67-52 victory.

The following week in practice, with the Grizzlies getting set to host two struggling Big Sky Conference squads in Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, DeCuire’s demeanor did not change. It’s a trademark of this Montana season so far: an unrelenting demand for excellence from the head coach that seemingly each key player on the roster has bought into full force.

“It’s really easy when a team gets a good roll of performances and wins to just relax, walk into practice feeling pretty good and don’t think you have to give 100 percent on Monday, we can flip the switch later in the week,” Fabijan Krslovic, UM’s lone senior, said in an interview earlier this season. “But the coaches know that we can be susceptible to that so it’s one thing we are trying to not let happen and try your best every day, not look at the past and not rely on that.”

Instead of a letdown after a rivalry game, Montana put forth two more dominant performances, allowing Southern Utah to make just four shots after halftime in a 71-47 win and eviscerating NAU by making 10 of its first 11 second half shots en rout to an 82-64 victory.

“What we can’t start doing is patting ourselves on the back because we haven’t accomplished anything yet,” DeCuire said. “We are just hot. We’ve won some games. And we’ve had some guys have some really big games. But we have to stick together, stay hungry and stay desperate.”

At the midpoint of the Big Sky slate, Montana is perfect. The Griz are 9-0 in league play with five of their final nine games in Missoula. Yet just as DeCuire hopes, the Grizzlies remain unsatisfied.

“It’s difficult but I think all 15 guys are really bought in to winning a Big Sky championship,” Montana junior All-Big Sky point guard Ahmaad Rorie said. “We are not losing sight of that for anything. We are not focusing on our undefeated record. We are just thinking get better as a team, get better individually and we will get what we want, which is that Big Sky championship.

“We are not trying to look at our record. You can easily lose games if you lose sight of what our goals are.”

UM leads the league during conference play in scoring offense and scoring defense, producing an impressive average margin of victory 17.7 points. The Griz are shooting 50 percent in league games and allowing teams to shoot just 37.8 percent, both the top marks in the Big Sky as well.

Crisp offensive execution has led to Rorie (18.6 points per game), Oguine (17.9 points per game) and junior power forward Jamar Akoh (16.4) all ranking in the top 11 in scoring during conference games. A team that shot 27.4 percent from beyond the arc in the non-conference is shooting 43.8 percent from deep in nine Big Sky games. The Griz have also chased opponents off the 3-point line better than any team in the league, allowing just 32.9 percent shooting to its opponents from deep.

“Everybody has bought in completely to what we are doing,” UM junior Bobby Moorehead said last week. “We have a new defensive scheme, which is helping things. Defensively, we were pretty shaky last year. We had a really good spring and summer working out together and we really know each other really well now, a lot of us are really close and that really helps.”

Much of Montana’s offense has come with its ability to force turnovers. The Griz are averaging a league-best 9.2 steals per game in league play and their +4.89 turnover margin is also best in the Big Sky.

“We have been the aggressor. It’s an aggressive approach,” Moorehead said. “It’s taking things away as opposed to letting other teams throw the first punch and maintain. Forced turnovers have been huge because we have guys who want to get out in transition. I think it fits us.”

After sitting out last season as part of his transfer from Cal State-Fullerton, the 6-foot-8, 255-pound Akoh has fit seamlessly into Montana’s attack. Unlike DeCuire’s first two years when the Griz fed the ball to All-Big Sky post Martin Breunig relentlessly, Akoh has been a dominant force when called upon while also fitting into Montana’s fast-paced, guard-oriented style.

He has provided needed scoring on the block, strong rebounding each night out and a physical presence to bolster the athleticism that surrounds him, from the unbelievably bouncy Oguine to the impressively conditioned Rorie to the long-limbed Moorehead to the spry, cerebral Krslovic.

“That’s huge, having those three guys — Ahmaad, Mike and Jamar — and they can’t take away all three every night,” Moorehead said. “And we have other guys who can step in, myself, Sayeed (Pridgett), Fab. We have so much balance and there are a lot of threats so teams can’t take away everybody.”

After a sporadic freshman season that included flashes of his potential, Pridgett has settled in to his new role as Montana’s sixth man. The 6-foot-5 Swiss Army knife can enter the game for any of UM’s five starters, giving the Griz a new lineup that challenges teams with mismatches across the board.

“It feels really good to be out of the chute good but like Coach always says, we can’t get no complacency,” Pridgett said. “We have to keep pushing and stay desperate.

“It’s about maturing. As a freshman, I probably wouldn’t have handled this as well. As a freshman, you want to play a bunch of minutes and you want to be a starter so this is about maturity, just like this team.”

The California native is averaging 7.5 points and 4.4 rebounds in 23.1 minutes per game. Pridgett along with true freshmen guard Timmy Falls and post Karl Nicholas give Montana one of the most talented top eight players in the league.

Montana forward Karl Nicholas (5)/by Jason Bacaj

“I think role definition has been huge,” DeCuire said. “At the end of the day these guys believe in each other and success plays a role in that. We are playing well early. Even though we took some tough losses, they stuck together and fought together and now you are starting to see some fruits of that. It’s been a long, long development but the chemistry is definitely the reason they are playing the way they are playing right now.”

For more than 50 years, the winner of the Big Sky regular-season title would get to host the tournament along with hanging a banner. This winter will mark the third and final year of Reno, Nevada hosting the Big Sky Tournament — the league will move the neutral-site event to Boise next spring.

Oguine said having a chance to host the tournament like Montana did most recently in 2015 was “like extra incentive”

“That’s not saying these games aren’t important,” Oguine continued. “But at the end of the day, everybody makes the tournament. You can go 18-0 in conference but lose your last game and we would all feel our season is a disappointment.”

Although this season’s first half of conference play is the best in DeCuire’s four years at the helm and it’s given Montana a 2.5 game lead in the league standings with nine to play, last year’s demons still haunt the Griz.. A season ago, despite a roster featuring almost every one of this year’s key contributors plus four seniors including All-Big Sky point guard Walter Wright, UM crumbled following a 5-1 Big Sky start.

Montana limped into the conference tournament with a down stretch that included the loss in Bozeman. The Griz finished 11-7 in league play before losing to Idaho in the first round of the Big Sky Tournament in Reno to finish 16-16, the first season of less than 20 wins under DeCuire.

The Griz begin the second half of their Big Sky quest with a crucial tilt against Northern Colorado on Thursday in Greeley.

“You just gotta know as easy as we got to this position, it can all be taken away from us,” UM junior Michael Oguine said last week. “Especially in our conference, it really comes down to three games: the conference tournament. We are really not trying to have a repeat of last year and the year before that, coming up so close and falling short.

“We are really going to try to stay on it and come as close to perfection as we can because three games in March, that’s what it comes down to and this is all just preparation for that.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez and Jason Bacaj. 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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