Big Sky Conference

Griz use second-half blitz to bury Viks, stay unbeaten in the Big Sky


MISSOULA — The formula is becoming tried and true for the Montana Grizzlies.

Use any means necessary to build a halftime lead even if the offense has not yet found its flow. Then use an eviscerating second-half runs to bury opponents in short order.

For the third straight home game and the fourth time in five games overall, Montana executed the formula once again. The Grizzlies overcame a sluggish shooting start for the first 20 minutes before burying Portland State with a dominant second half.

UM began the second stanza on a 12-0 run to turn a slugfest into a runaway, cruising to an 80-60 victory in front of 4,082 at Dahlberg Arena on Thursday night.

“Coach Trav (Travis DeCuire) is as good as anyone in the country making halftime adjustments and we do a great job of going back and analyzing the first half, where we were good, where we struggle and where we need improvement,” UM junior guard Michael Oguine said after notching his first double-double of the season with 14 points and 10 rebounds. “Our team does a good job of receiving that coaching and making adjustments on the court.”

Montana guard Ahmaad Rorie (14)/by UM Athletics

The victory is Montana’s 12th straight to begin Big Sky Conference play and earns the Griz a season sweep of the Vikings. Montana has now swept five teams in the league this season with a chance to sew up a sweep against Sacramento State on Saturday.

The Grizzlies have now won 15 of 16 dating back to the non-conference. Montana is 10-0 on its home court with four of its final six conference games at home and the league tournament in Reno 25 days away.

“Steady. A few weeks back, celebrating, exciting but now, we have a really focused group right now that is excited for each other’s achievements,” DeCuire said after his team’s 19th win in 24 games. “…All these guys are padding stats that are leading to wins but the fact that they are playing so hard together and the chemistry is so strong, they are really focused. What I see is a business-like environment when I walk into the locker room after the win.”

Portland State entered the game third in NCAA Division I by averaging more than 88 points per game, the best total in the Big Sky. PSU scored 89 in a three-point loss to Montana in Portland, the closest conference game UM has played during a winning streak that is now two victories away from tying the school record. Thursday marked Portland State’s season-low point total.

“I love it and I think that has to be our identity if we are going to win,” DeCuire said. “We talk about not letting our offense affect our defense. We struggled offensively in the first half. We were not making shots, we were playing too fast. And we still got back and were guarding.”

Montana forward Jamar Akoh (15)/by UM Athletics

Junior forward Jamar Akoh, who finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds for his sixth double-double of the season, said Montana’s stated motto coming out of halftime is to get three stops in a row.

The Griz did just that Thursday, forcing seven straight Portland State misses and stringing together a 12-0 run in less than three minutes to turn a 34-29 halftime lead into a cushion that never dipped below 14 and swelled to as many as 23 points.

“We got six (stops) to start the second half. When we do that, we go on runs,” Akoh said. “When we went on our run, we sustained it. Even when they called timeouts, we came out and got a few more stops. That’s huge for us.”

Portland State’s trademark full-court pressure — the Viks entered the game forcing 20 turnovers per game — led to a plague of early foul trouble but also disrupted the flow enough to help PSU hold a 21-17 lead 10 minutes into the game. Portland State committed 13 fouls in the game’s first nine minutes, including three by star freshman Holland Woods and two each for starters Michael Mayhew and Traylin Farris.

“We had a good start but we had too many fouls,” PSU first-year head coach Barret Peery said. “Everyone who had a green jersey on had two fouls and Holland had three fouls at halftime. It was hard for any of us to every find our rhythm after that. We were just trying to mix and match lineups after that.”

Montana guard Michael Oguine (0)/by UM Athletics

That foul trouble eventually caught up to the Vikings. Farris played just eight minutes. Ryan Edwards, a 7-foot, 325-pound graduate transfer from Gonzaga who prepped at Kalispell Glacier, scored eight points in the first half but could not keep pace with Akoh after halftime, eventually fouling out in 16 minutes of action.

The Vikings, who were without indefinitely suspended senior wing Deontae North (22.4 points per game) for the fourth straight game do to an undisclosed violation of team rules, fell to 4-7 in Big Sky play and 14-10 overall. The Big Sky slate has been the polar opposite of a non-league surge that saw PSU win 10 games, including victories at Cal and Stanford.

“We are a little bit depleted right now,” Peery said. “We don’t have some guys with us and it’s hurt us. Our depth had been hurt the last month.

“We have to keep trying to win and keep putting ourselves in a position to win in the tournament. We have a big one on Saturday at Montana State so we have to focus on that.”

PSU also hung around early because of 11 offensive rebounds in the first 11 minutes of the game. But like the Grizzlies have in every game since the calendar turned to 2018, Montana made the necessary adjustments — in this case incorporating Akoh and senior post Fabijan Krslovic in the press break while also spacing better while boxing out to reclaim the glass — to bury their latest Big Sky victim.

“They weren’t really guarding us, pressuring us and we are pretty good ball handlers so we attacked and the guards would come down the middle,” Akoh said of breaking the press. “That was a turning point.”

Montana forward Sayeed Pridgett (4)/by UM Athletics

“We were getting driven into what Coach Trav calls no-mans land,” Oguine said of the rebounding struggles early that turned into a 47-38 final edge. “We really made a point to drive them under basket, getting good position and crashing as a team on the defensive glass.”

The Griz committed just 10 turnovers against the pressure, instead making 20-of-35 shots after halftime and winning the second stanza by 15 points despite making just two 3-pointers all night. The Griz played a shorter bench than DeCuire’s normaleight-man rotation — freshmen Timmy Falls and Karl Nicholas combined for 16 minutes while the top six of Akoh, Krslovic, Oguine, juniors Bobby Moorehead and Ahmaad Rorie and sophomore sixth man Sayeed Pridgett all played at least 24 — in an effort to handle PSU’s pressure.

The contributions were deep as Pridgett (14 points) and Rorie (12 points, six assists) joined Akoh and Oguine in double figures.

Less than a week after Woods scored 29 points and dished out nine assists in a 94-81 win over Eastern Washington, Montana held him to two points and no made shots. The Griz eliminated Bryce Canda as well, allowing the senior averaging 14.8 points per game to convert 2-of-12 from the floor and score just six points, all when the game was already in hand.

“It’s all about the defensive end,” Oguine said. “Scoring points is fun and all but when you can really string together some stops like we did to start off the second half, it’s big. When we are playing like that, everything becomes easier.”

Montana head coach Travis DeCuire coaching guard Ahmaad Rorie (14)/by UM Athletics

DeCuire posted just one win in his first five career games against Sac State. The Hornets swept the Grizzlies last season. Sacramento State limps into Missoula with a 6-18 record that includes a 3-8 mark against the Big Sky. Montana posted a 78-66 win at the Nest last month, the first win in Sacramento for this group of Griz. Yet Montana is not underestimating the struggling Hornets, who lost 92-76 to Montana State in Bozeman on Thursday night.

“We want to sweep Sac State this year,” Oguine said. “They’ve been giving us problems in the past, beat us at home. That’s a team that really fights hard and they never give up. They have a coach that really rallies them up and when they play us, it’s something about this matchup that brings out the best in them. We are going to bring everything we have. We aren’t going to look at their record at all and know that they can come in and beat us if we are not on top of our stuff.”

Photos courtesy of Todd Goodrich, UM sports information. All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter 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 partnered with Kevin Miller to launch Bobcat Beat, an online newsgathering website focusing on daily coverage of Montana State athletics. In August of 2014, the Nuanez brothers merged their passions for sports journalism and founded Skyline Sports.

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