MISSOULA — With a seemingly never-ending string of whistles drawing a cascade of boos from the Dahlberg Arena faithful, Montana turned to its peerless senior backcourt.
As they have so many times in three seasons playing with each other, Ahmaad Rorie and Michael Oguine delivered with flare and timeliness, lifting the Grizzlies to a gritty 70-54 victory over Southern Utah in front of 4,383 on Saturday night in Missoula.
If the moments shots go through the net and the runs they ignite were the primary determining factor in the Big Sky Conference MVP race, it would be hard to pick anyone other than Rorie. The steely Montana guard has fully embraced the identity of facilitating iron man who picks his spots and takes over for stretches. Saturday was no different.
With the Griz clinging to a four-point lead and a barrage of whistles against one of the most athletic teams in the Big Sky, Rorie stepped into a 3-pointer, pounding the back nail as a Southern Utah defender pounded him. His 4-point play doubled the Griz lead. His pull-up jumper less than a minute later kept it there.
And his backside lob to Oguine for a trademark two-handed alley-oop slam helped the Grizzlies finally move the gap to double digits against arguably the most improved team in the Big Sky.
“They are really talented even though they are up and down so we wanted to put the game away while we had the chance,” Rorie said. “We got some momentum and put it away.”
Oguine, one of the most breathtaking leapers in the history of the Big Sky Conference, has provided an almost endless streak of highlight reel plays during his unique and memorable career. The slashing pogo stick has been banged up the second half of his final season, the end to a career that has seen him make 116 starts and play 31 minutes per outing over 120 games and counting.
Oguine has been nursing an ailing left hand, aching knees that require double bags of ice after each game and a tender back after getting undercut at Idaho. But on Saturday, Oguine turned the momentum of the game with his two-handed flush, then helped his team pull away by hitting a 3-pointer in transition off a sweet dish from, fittingly, Rorie on the very next possession.
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“I haven’t thrown a lob for a minute,” Rorie said. “I knew that was going to be open and he jumps high, so just throw it anywhere by the basket. I felt like that was a game-changer.”
Oguine’s triple gave UM a 62-49 lead with 5:27 left. Oguine finished with 14 points and nine rebounds. The Griz never looked back.
— Montana Griz BB (@MontanaGrizBB) March 3, 2019
“We’ve had so much support over the years and to have it all come together, tonight especially, it was awesome,” Oguine said. “I appreciate all the people who came out to support us.”
Southern Utah used a trapping, aggressive defense to force five Griz turnovers in the first four minutes. And that defense helped hold Pridgett to zero first-half points on three missed field goal attempts.
SUU held a good deal of the momentum despite trailing because of a sloppily officiated game that included inconsistencies on both ends and included a technical foul drawn by DeCuire a few possessions AFTER he kicked the scorer’s table in frustration.
But when Rorie decided to take over the game, he locked in, got Oguine ignited and Montana never looked back on the way to its 14th league victory and 21st overall.
“That’s who they are and they’ve been that way for their entire time here and that’s why they are sitting in first place,” SUU head coach Todd Simon said. “They have a lot of talent and they play hard and they defend. This is a hard place to win. Hat’s off to Montana’s seniors. What an esteemed legacy this group has had here.”
Rorie would convert one more bucket to keep the Thunderbirds at bay. Then then Griz once again turned to junior Sayeed Pridgett, who scored all 20 of his points in the second half. Pridgett scored five of the final six as UM turned a game in which it did not lead by double digits for 35 minutes into a healthy margin of victory.
Pridgett has been a catalyst since Jamar Akoh, UM’s senior center and first-half league MVP front-runner, went down with a knee injury that ultimately required surgery six games ago.
While Pridgett has provided elite efficiency in the post — he is shooting 61.3 percent from the floor in conference play — UM senior wing Bobby Moorehead has been the stalwart on the other end. The 6-foot-7 shooter-turned-stopper is the leading candidate for Big Sky Defensive MVP.
Moorehead had a chase down block of SUU senior guard Brandon Better to halt Southern Utah’s early 13-6 start. He closed out on Better and SUU leading scorer Cameron Uluyitan over and over again despite an array of ticky tack fouls called because of Better’s flailing legs and Moorehead’s aggressiveness.
Moorehead finished with four points and nine rebounds. His dunk seven minutes into the second half proved to be a highlight on a night when more than a dozen friends and family came from Moorehead’s hometown of Tacoma to Missoula to watch him perform.
“He always jokes around about how he’s going to get a dunk and tonight, he got one,” Rorie said. “That’s going to be special for him forever.”
Most senior nights double as the final home game of the season. But Montana has one more outing in Missoula. The Griz will take on Northern Arizona (7-11 in league, 9-19 overall) on Monday night.
“It’s just like Thursday-Saturday, we are used to it, but some of our bodies are pretty banged up,” Moorehead said. “We will do some treatment tomorrow, light practice, and be mentally prepared more than anything on Monday.”
The Grizzlies’ win keeps them in the driver’s seat in the league title race with three games left to play. The Griz are a game ahead of Northern Colorado in the win column. UNC kept pace with a 71-62 home win over Idaho State. The Bears are 14-4 in BSC play.
“It’s a great feeling knowing we don’t have to rely on anybody else to win a championship,” Moorehead said. “We are in the best spot we can be in. If we handle our business, we will be champions.”
Photos by Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved.