MISSOULA, Montana — As of late, when the Grizzlies smell blood in the water, they maul the Wildcats.
Last spring at the Big Sky Tournament in Boise, Montana destroyed Weber State in the semifinals to move into the tournament championship game for the fourth time in five seasons under head coach Travis DeCuire,
In that 78-49 blowout, UM used a suffocating defense that didn’t allow Weber State to find any room to operate in its usually crisp halfcourt offense. And the Griz guards teamed up to almost shut out Weber State scoring machine Jerrick Harding, holding WSU’s recently minted career scoring champion to six points on 3-of-8 shooting.
Thursday night at Dahlberg Arena, a Griz team seeking revenge didn’t need to take away Harding. Because of leg pain and a stiff back, the Weber State senior did not play.
In a rematch of a thriller that Weber State won 87-85 in overtime three weeks ago, Sayeed Pridgett and Kendal Manuel led a mauling against a visiting team playing without the leading scorer in the league.
Pridgett poured in 25 points, including a stretch that saw him score 15 out of 18 as Montana pushed the gap into blowout territory. Manuel scored 14 points in the first half, making his first four shots and punctuating the outburst with a surprisingly explosive one-handed dunk in traffic on his way to 21 points.
And Montana’s senior duo helped the Griz build a 30-point lead with eight minutes to play before DeCuire elected to sit the stars down the stretch as UM cruised to a 72-37 victory in front of 3,730 on Thursday night.
“You have to take advantage of every opportunity you have and we prepared ourselves to win this game no matter what,” DeCuire said. “It would’ve been a lot different with Jerrick, no disrespect to him and their program. It’s unfortunate guys have injuries.
“We were that team last year. We found out right before tip that
that (All-Big Sky center) Jamar Akoh wasn’t going to play twice. It’s unfortunate and I think this Weber team just didn’t have as much depth as last year to survive that.”
The win moves Montana to 11-3 in league play, 15-10 overall. The Griz now have a two-game lead in the win column over Eastern Washington with six league contests reaming. The victory also helps the Griz earn the regular-season split with the Wildcats, who fell to 6-8 in league play and 10-15 overall.
“We were upset about Harding breaking history on us when we were at their house (passing Damian Lillard on WSU’s all-time scoring list) and we didn’t want that to happen again,” Pridgett said. “Even though he didn’t play, we came out defensively to let them know we weren’t having it this time.”
The Griz used high-pressure defense in the half court to spark transition opportunities, disrupt Weber State’s offensive flow and hold a team to the lowest point total by a UM squad since 2010. The defensive effort — UM held WSU to 32.5 percent shooting, 3-of-14 from beyond the arc and forced 21 turnovers — helped the Griz allow the least points by the program in a Big Sky game since 1976.
“Other than this game, Eastern Washington (a 90-63 win in Cheney) is the only game we have held an opponent under 40 percent and shot over 50,” DeCuire said. “Playing on both sides of the ball has been an issue for us and finding that balance is important if we are going to continue to win here down the stretch.”
Harding dressed out and warmed up but had most of Dahlberg Arena wondering his status when he was not announced in the starting line. Harding suffered a severely sprained ankle in the non-conference, an injury that has significantly limited his practice time even though he entered Saturday’s contest playing nearly 38 minutes per game in conference play.
Despite the ankle and the subsequent shin splints and back tightness the injury caused, Harding still entered Thursday’s game averaging 24.8 points per game in league play and 22.4 points per game overall. Just last week, he lit up Sac State, scoring 44 points on 21 shots on a night he passed Jeremy Senglin (2014-2018) for Weber State’s career scoring record.
Before the game, UM associate head coach Chris Cobb said he thought that Harding was the best pure scorer he had seen in his six years on DeCuire’s staff, including Montana State’s Tyler Hall, Northern Colorado’s Jordan Davis and Eastern Washington’s Bogdan Bliznyuk. All three are the three former players ahead of Harding on the league’s all-time scoring list and all three played in the league over the last few seasons.
None of that mattered Thursday with Harding unavailable. And without the explosive, lightning-fast 6-foot southpaw, Weber State found no flow offensively.
“We wanted him to play, honestly,” Manuel said of Harding. “We felt like we owed them one and with him not there, he didn’t get to be part of it. But I think we sent a message, for sure.”
Harding scored 32 points in Weber State’s overtime win over Montana three weeks ago. Since that game, he has been averaging 27 points per contest, including his epic night against Sac State. He has scored 502 points this season and 2,055 in his career. His absence Thursday night hurt the Wildcats to say the least.
“We had an idea it’s been coming for awhile now,” Rahe said. “He broke his foot in October and he missed two and a half months, so he didn’t have a preseason. When he came back, he developed some major, major shin splits on the other leg because he was favoring the other one.
“First conference game, he has a high ankle sprain, should’ve sat out about three weeks and he sat out about six days. But it’s just been coming. It’s starting to break down, break down. We had an idea the other day in practice and in shoot around today, still, we didn’t find out right before the game. He wanted to warm up and see and he just had nothing. I think it was really demoralizing for our guys because they had no idea. They thought he was going to play.”
Manuel’s dunk less than 11 minutes into the action pushed the Griz lead to 26-12 and gave Manuel 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting. Manuel’s point total moves him over 1,000 points in a career that began with two seasons at Oregon State and is in its stretch run in his second and final season with the Griz. Manuel moved into the 1,000-point club with the Thunder dunk.
“I had my adrenaline going and I feel more confident after the Idaho game,” Manuel said. “I had a nice dunk there, too so I feel more aggressive. Coach Flo (assistant Jay Flores) was the one telling me to stop double-clutching, just go dunk because I do it in practice. Coming out here, I just wanted to put it out there and that was the result, I guess.”
WSU junior Michal Kozak halted Montana’s 16-1 run by banking in a 3-pointer. But the hosts again responded, pushing the 26-15 advantage to 38-21 by halftime.
Pridgett scored eight of his 16 first-half points in the final 3:32 before the break as Montana took a similarly dominant lead as 11 months ago in Boise into the halftime locker room. Last March, Montana led 42-22 at halftime.
“Weber was one of the schools that recruited them and I love playing against them,” Pridgett said. “Coach Rahe is still close with me and my family and my AAU coaches so it’s like family. I know I have to show up for this game.”
After halftime, Pridgett, Manuel and junior Timmy Falls continued to push the ball and fill up the basket. Pridgett scored eight straight points, including his first 3-pointer of the night, to extend the gap to 48-25 with 15:03.
Manuel then took his turn, pouring in five straight to boost him to his final point total and give Montana a 55-27 cushion with 10:34 left.
Falls drilled a 3-pointer with 9:47 left pushed him into double figures, gave the Griz a 28-point lead and effectively ended the evening for UM’s more veteran players.
“It’s still a long season and anything can happen in any week but we just have to keep it simple, do what we’ve been doing the last few games, go out and defend,” Manuel said. “Hopefully, at the end of the year, we are in first place still.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.