Big Sky Conference

Griz, Thunderbirds open Big Sky play in Cedar City


The Montana Grizzlies have just one game under their belts this abbreviated basketball season, yet Big Sky Conference play opens in earnest on Thursday night in Cedar City.

UM plays at Southern Utah on Thursday night and again on Saturday at noon. The Grizzlies and the Thunderbirds are two of the four teams that open league play about a month before the rest of the league.

Sacramento State hosts Idaho Thursday and Saturday, debuting the league’s new format featuring back-to-back games against the same team in the same location.

Both games this week can be watched worldwide on Pluto TV or heard through the Grizzly Sports Network

“(The conference schedule) different from a basketball standpoint,” DeCuire told Skyline Sports last month. “The guys, it’s going to take a minute to get used to playing someone and watch film the next morning and try to fix whatever didn’t work or try to do something different against the same opponent the next day.

The Thunderbirds are among four teams that earned victories the first week of action as college basketball opened its season on November 25, nearly eight months after the Big Sky and NCAA Tournaments were cancelled.

SUU dropped its opener 85-83 on a buzzer-beater at Loyola Marymount last Wednesday despite 19 points and 10 assists from All-Big Sky guard John Knight III. The former Utah State transfer was among four Thunderbirds in double figures that night in Los Angeles.

Three nights later, Illinois transfer Tevian Jones followed up his 17-point performance at LMU by scoring 22 points to again lead four players in double figures scoring as SUU posted a 95-47 win over St. Katherine.

“Southern Utah is going to be a team that will be playing with confidence,” Montana head coach Travis DeCuire said. “They’re playing well, and they’re at home. We have to go in there with confidence, as well, and be physical and play the best we can.”

Weber State (88-60 over Adams State), Sacramento State (101-57 over Bethesda) and Montana State (91-78 over UNLV) are the other three Big Sky teams to post wins during the opening week. MSU’s victory, the first true road win to open a season since 2002 by the Bobcats, was the lone triumph in the league over a Division I opponent.

In it’s opener, Montana fell behind by 24 points less than 13 minutes into the game and lost its opener 76-62 at USC in Los Angeles on Saturday. The Griz won the final 27 minutes of action 54-44 but shooting percentages of less than 34 in both the first and second half doomed the visitors.

“We’ve got some young guys who don’t have a lot of experience, and a couple guys who haven’t played in a long time,” said DeCuire, who inserted 10 of his available 11 players before the game was six minutes old.

“I like the fact that we fought and we had some guys who finished the game who didn’t start the game.”

The Grizzlies have represented the Big Sky in the NCAA Tournament the last two times the Big Dance has taken place. Although Montana lost three of four to end the regular season as the No. 3 seed heading into the tournament, many around the program felt confident in the program’s potential to make another postseason run.

The main spark? The fact that the Griz handily beat regular-season champion Eastern Washington twice last winter combined with Montana’s triumphs over the Eagles in the last two tournament championship games.

The most recent UM team had it’s most recent March Madness hopes end abruptly, meaning an incomplete finish to the careers of All-Big Sky seniors Sayeed Pridgett and Kendal Manuel.

Montana senior Sayeed Pridgett moved into fourth on Montana’s all-time scoring list on Saturday/ by Daniel Duensing, Montana Kaimin

Pridgett, a two-time first-team all-league pick, averaged 19.8 points per game last season, helping him finish his career with 1,679 points. That point total is the fourth-most in school history and the most by a Grizzlies since Larry Krystkowiak completed his career in 1986.

Manuel, a Billings native who started his career at Oregon State, was the Big Sky’s Top Newcomer and Top Reserve as a junior, then averaged 15 points per game as a senior to earn second-team all-conference honors.

Each of Montana’s three seniors (including forward Jared Samuelson) saw their careers essentially end in an 85-80 overtime loss to Southern Utah in Missoula.

Five of the 11 players that played at USC Saturday made their Griz debuts, while sophomore Eddy Egun made his first career start alongside former transfers Cam Parker and Michael Steadman along with true freshman Josh Bannan.

Derrick Carter-Hollinger, last season’s Big Sky Freshman of the Year, rounded out the starting lineup while his classmates Kyle Owens and Josh Vazquez also got playing time to kick off their second seasons as Grizzlies. Graduate transfer Cameron Satterwhite (Loyola-Chicago, Northern Arizona) and true freshman Brandon Whitney (17 points) also made their Montana debuts.

Despite a roster highlighted by so many young and so many new faces, Montana was picked to finish second in the league in the preseason polls. And despite a talented roster highlighted by Knight III along with proven senior point guard Dre Marin, improving junior swingman Maizen Fausett and high motor junior power forward Harrison Butler, Southern Utah was picked to finish sixth in the league.

The Thunderbirds have had as much success in the Big Sky Tournament as any program outside Montana and Eastern Washington. As the bottom seed in the tournament in 2017, SUU still won a game, marking the only time the last-place team advanced. In 2018, the 10th-seeded Thunderbirds beat No. 7 Idaho State before upsetting No. 2 Idaho, one of the favorites to advance to the NCAA Tournament, before falling to EWU. In 2019, SUU won two games, including trouncing second-seeded Northern Colorado by 20 points before losing for the second year in a row to Eastern Washington.

Montana is arguably the most prestigious program in the Big Sky Conference and only Weber State has a seat at the table for the argument. The Griz are certainly the cream of the crop over the last 18 years, advancing to the NCAA Tournament eight times during that span.

The Griz will look to continue a few streaks this weekend. UM hasn’t lost a conference opener since 2008. Montana is 18-6 all-time against Southern Utah and has not lost to the Thunderbirds in Cedar City since 1999. But the last time the two teams played, Southern Utah spoiled senior night at Dahlberg Arena.

The first showdown of this unorthodox Big Sky Conference season gets underway in Cedar City at 7 p.m. Thursday night at the American First Events Center between two of the top contenders for the league’s postseason bid.

“It’s a huge weekend, there’s no denying it,” SUU fifth-year head coach Todd Simon said in a Southern Utah press release. “Montana has been picked in the first couple spots of the league for an eternity, and we’re trying to crack that level where we get the respect of a Montana. We have to earn that, we have to get over that hump to where we’re winning conference championships, and they’re one of the teams that goes through.” 

Photos by Brooks Nuanez and Daniel Duensing, Montana Kaimin. 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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