MISSOULA — Travis DeCuire entered Thursday night’s game at Dahlberg Arena with just 17 Big Sky Conference losses in 74 league games as his Griz prepared to host Sacramento State. Four of those losses came to Brian Katz’s Hornets.
Even when the Griz beat the Hornets, like in a sweep last season on the way to the Big Sky title, Sac State’s physical style and front-court depth has had a way of stifling Montana. UM’s sweep of the Hornets last winter came by a combine total of eight points.
For the first 12 minutes of Thursday’s contest, Josh Patton, Calvin Martin and Sac State’s front line gave the Griz trouble. The Hornets held a three-point lead when Timmy Falls stepped into a 3-pointer and drilled it, breaking his personal cold streak for a moment.
That 3-pointer sparked the Griz on both ends. Montana kicked it into high gear in transition, Ahmaad Rorie continued his hot shooting, Jamar Akoh refused to let Patton and Martin hang on the block and the hosts pulled away in short order.
Montana went on an 18-2 run over the span of six minutes that included thunderous dunks by Akoh and Rorie to ignite the 3,920 in UM’s Big Sky home opener, six different Griz scored and the lead swelled to 13.
After halftime, Montana continued to move the ball crisply and shoot from deep efficiently en rout to a thorough 87-56 victory to move to 3-0 in conference play.
“We were ready for war,” DeCuire said. “We were more aggressive, more physical and we set the tone. I think that’s important. And you set the tone with post play.
The victory gives Montana 10 wins in 14 contests. It also marks UM’s 20th home victory in a row, the 4th-longest streak in Division I men’s basketball. Thursday’s game and Saturday’s contest against Portland State, a 98-88 loser at Montana State Thursday, are Montana’s only two home games during a nine-game stretch.
“I’m not sure if we approached it like it was Sac State other than just another game where we try to come out and play our best ball and play the hardest we can,” said Akoh, who finished with his first double-double in league play.
The loss drops Sac State to 0-2 in Big Sky play, 6-5 overall. Marcus Graves, an All-Big Sky selection two seasons ago before missing last season with a knee injury, led the Hornets with 10 points but hit just two of his 12 field goal attempts.
The Hornets shot 38.2 percent and missed 3-of-14 from beyond the arc. Montana forced 17 Sac State turnovers and the Hornets never found offensive flow following Montana’s first-half blitz.
“We took away their bread and butter, which is their baseline offense and when they couldn’t score out of that, they had a hard time finding good shots,” DeCuire said.
Akoh continued his dominant play thus far against the rest of the Big Sky. He earned a double-double less than seven minutes into the second half and finished with a monster line of 21 points and 18 rebounds. In three league games, Akoh is averaging 22 points and 11 rebounds, either demanding a double-team that gives UM’s shooters space or scoring against any single coverage.
“With him back, everybody knows their role and with him back, there’s more consistency to what we do,” DeCuire said, referring to a six-game stretch during the non-conference when Akoh was out with a wrist injury. “When we don’t have a guy to throw it into inside, it changes our offensive attack. When you spend two, three months working on low-post play and then you don’t have it, it’s very difficult to win games.”
The Griz took a 25-22 deficit and turned it into a 42-29 lead in the first half capped by four straight from Donaven Dorsey. Montana got a collection of consecutive stops and turned them into points in taking the lead and keeping it.
“We started guarding,” DeCuire said. “They were shooting 64 percent midway through the first half. I don’t think we were doing a good job of contesting shots, their movement, the ball was moving side to side too much. We had to slow them down and deflect some balls. Once we started forcing turnovers and contesting shots, we could get into transition.”
Akoh helped pace the Griz to a 40-26 rebounding advantage against one of the best rebounding teams in the conference. Oguine added seven rebounds. Six of Akoh’s rebounds came offensively.
“That was one of our biggest keys, coming in and rebounding,” Akoh said. “I came into the game knowing I had to rebound if we were going to win. I was definitely aggressive on the boards.”
Montana used a 10-2 run out of halftime to push its advantage to 16 points and it kept building. Michael Oguine hit a 3-pointer to make the advantage 70-48 with 7:36 left, Rorie’s fifth 3-pointer gave Montana a 75-50 advantage 90 seconds later and a pair of Rorie free throws extended the gap to 30 points, 80-50 with 4:33 left.
Falls hit his second 3-pointer of the evening with 2:47 left, shrugging off a cold streak that saw him miss 13 of 14 from deep before Thursday. That triple gave Montana its largest lead, 84-51.
Rorie led Montana’s 3-point barrage, hitting 5-of-8 from beyond the arc in tying Akoh for game-high honors with 21 points. Oguine hit three 3s on his way to 12 points, Falls hit a pair and the Griz hit 13 of 20 from deep.
“I expect to shoot a good field goal percentage and if we are over 50, that’s a good sign for us,” said DeCuire, who’s team shot 54.4 percent and tallied 19 assists on 31 made shots. “That comes from ball movement. And it starts from the post. From there, we make adjustments to what they do defensively, get side to side a little bit and we get open shots. If they are falling, we keep taking them and if they aren’t, we attack the rim.”
Sayeed Pridgett (13) joined Rorie, Akoh and Oguine in double figures scoring.
DeCuire’s team took care of business for the third time in six days Thursday. The Griz take the court for the fourth time in eight days Saturday against the Vikings.
“It’s going to be tough,” DeCuire said. “What I told them is that if we can get through this two-week stretch, then we will have a long week to sit and wait for some teams. It’s a little tough because we are playing some good teams. Northern Colorado next week will have a big advantage with us because they will have Monday to Saturday to get ready for us and we will have a one-day turnaround. If we can get through it and figure this thing out, we will be sitting in a pretty good spot.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.