Since Travis DeCuire took over as Montana’s head coach in May 2014, the Grizzlies have had a strange relationship with the state of California. Montana has had little trouble finding talent in the nation’s third-largest state. But when it comes to finding wins, that’s been a much more difficult task.
That struggle continued Saturday at The Nest in Sacramento where the Hornets lead wire to wire, defeating the Griz 92-83, dropping Montana to 1-8 in California during DeCuire’s tenure.
“I asked them why, what and how,” DeCuire said in a postgame interview with KGVO radio. “We’ve been flat two games in a row. Our offense has been fine, but our defensive enthusiasm has been down. Our extra effort hasn’t been good enough and I don’t know that we’ve competed on the defensive end.”
Two days removed from an 88-79 loss at Portland State, Montana’s defense, a focus for the third-year coach, was under siege early and never recovered. Sacramento State hit six first-half threes on its way to 41 points as Montana played without senior Walter Wright, who sat out the first 23 minutes. The Hornets scored 51 more in the second half in moving to 3-4 in Big Sky Conference play, 6-12 overall.
Not only was it enough to produce the first time a Montana team coached by DeCuire surrendered at least 80 points in consecutive games, but also the first time one was swept during a conference road trip during the coach’s watch.
“Some of it is there are guys that aren’t great shooters that have stepped up and made shots. I think that’s because they don’t feel us there, they don’t notice us there,” DeCuire said. “Some of it is we need to be a stronger basketball team. I think we’ve been pretty passive defensively and haven’t been giving the energy it takes to win. We need to fix that.”
The second straight loss after a 5-1 Big Sk start overshadowed a career-high effort from freshman Sayeed Pridgett. Playing a little more than 100 miles from where he grew up in the Bay Area, Pridgett scored 28 points, 18 of which came in the second half as the Griz desperately tried to chase down an opponent over the final 20 minutes for the second straight game.
Sacramento State, orchestrated by junior point guard Marcus Graves, who finished with 18 points and 13 assists, hit eight of its first 10 shots to open a 16-point lead with seven minutes expired in the second half.
It’s as big as the lead got, but it took until sophomore Michael Oguine’s steal and dunk with 7:33 remaining before the Griz got it back down to single digits. Sophomore Ahmaad Rorie followed with a three as he teamed with Oguine and Pridgett to score the team’s final 34 points.
Montana got as close as three points on two occasions – an Oguine three and a pair of Rorie free throws — but Sacramento answered both times, the second time when Graves drove into the lane and dished to 6-foot-11 senior Eric Stuteville, who drew the fourth foul on Griz junior post Fabijan Krslovic, completed a 3-point play and infused the Hornets with momentum to finish it off.
While he was important as Montana attempted its comeback, Pridgett, with a large gathering of friends and family in attendance, was effective from the start. He worked from the post, the high-post, and slashed from the outside, once taking an in-bounds the length of the court, dribbled around the defense and threw down a one-handed dunk in the face of three Sacramento defenders.
“It doesn’t hurt to have people from home here to support you and you have a little more confidence,” DeCuire said of Pridgett, who didn’t score in the previous two games and has been in double figures once since Dec. 3. “I think his confidence was gone for a little bit. As a freshman you hit that lull and you need to snap out of it. It was good to see him come back. We’ve been needing that for a long time and hopefully he’s back for the rest of the season.”
DeCuire said Wright was fine, but didn’t elaborate on why the senior guard sat out the first half. Montana’s coach did concede that there are “kinks to work out.”
“As a team we have a lot of stuff to sort out,” DeCuire said. “We’ll have a nice meeting on the way home and have one Monday. Then we’ll be back and fired up to hold down the fort. If we can get these two next week we’ll be fine.”
NOTES: Rorie finished with 22, his third straight game over 20. Oguine chipped in 15 and Krslovic had 10. Four players combined to score 75 of Montana’s 83 points. … The Griz shot 54 percent, but allowed Sac State to hit 58 percent. … Nick Hornsby scored 25 to pace the Hornets.