In the cruelest of ironies, the athleticism of the Big Sky champions overwhelmed the kings of the Big Ten early in Wichita.
After the Wolverines locked in, Michigan maintained its reputation as one of the hottest teams in the country, squandering Montana’s Cinderella run in the process by exploiting Montana’s season-long achilles heel.
The athletic, fearless Griz stormed out to a 10-0 lead by keeping the third-seeded Wolverines scoreless for the first four minutes of their first round NCAA Tournament matchup against third-seeded Michigan. UM junior Michael Oguine looked like the best player on the court, drilling a 3-pointer on the first possession of the game followed by two free throws on the second, sandwiched around the first two of a surplus of stops secured by the Grizzlies.
But as it has been all year, the same demon reared its head against the Big Sky’s best; Montana had scoreless streaks of more than six minutes in the first half and nearly nine minutes in the second half due to inefficient shooting. The sum result meant a 61-47 Michigan victory to help the Big Ten Tournament champions move on to the Round of 32 in this March Madness.
“I’m proud of my team,” Montana head coach Travis DeCuire said. “We won a lot of games this year. We fought. We’ve had adversity that we fought through. And I’m excited to have all these guys back, most of them, with the exception of Fab (Fabijan Krlsovic), and see if we can bring it back and maybe perform a little better this time.”
Oguine helped Montana surge to the 10-0 lead and Ahmaad Rorie’s 3-point play gave Montana its first and only 10-point lead. Sayeed Pridgett’s 3-point play gave the Griz a 15-8 lead.
Oguine, the Big Sky Tournament MVP and regular-season Defensive MVP, swooped to the lane once again, converting to give him nine points and stake the Griz to a 17-10 lead midway through the first half. On the next possession, he picked up his second foul and headed to the bench.
In the two and a half minutes Montana’s tone-setting jumping jack junior was on the bench, the Wolverines seized the momentum. Michigan cut the lead to three before Oguine re-entered, then took its first lead 16 minutes into the game, 22-19. Rorie answered with his first of two big buckets late in the first half to keep the margin at one possession, but Michigan’s second 3-pointer pushed the lead to four with less than three minutes until intermission.
Montana’s hot start turned into a trudging grind after the first five minutes of the game. The Wolverines went on a 16-4 run to take a 26-21 lead. Rorie’s 3-pointer in Montana’s final first half possession helped the Griz go into the break down 31-28.
The Grizzlies held Michigan star power forward Moritz Wagner scoreless in the first half. His first bucket on the first possession of the second half sparked a 7-2 Wolverine run that pushed the favorites’ lead to 38-30 three minutes into the second half. Then the shot clock and game clock stopped working, causing an 11-minute stoppage.
After the clocks started working, Montana did not score a point for more than nine minutes but somehow kept the margin at 10 points thanks to its trademark relentless defense.
“I think you’d rather get the flow of the game, have it be continuous,” Oguine said. “They were going on a run there. So you would think that it would be in our favor maybe to slow down their momentum, but I know I speak for myself and my teammates when I say we were ready to go the whole night.”
Montana did not score for half of the second half and missed nine straight shots yet kept the deficit manageable by making stop after stop. By the time UM had missed 13 straight shots, the Wolverines had pushed the lead to 44-30 with 9:34 left. The Griz battled, keeping the lead at 12, 50-38, until there was five minutes left but the 10-0 run was off-set by a 33-minute stretch where Montana only scored 28 points.
“They got a couple of easy buckets on us at the beginning of the game. We went to halftime, made some adjustments, played more team defense and get in the gaps and things like that, and that gave them trouble,” Michigan guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman said.
Rorie, the only Griz to play in an NCAA Tournament game during his true freshman year at Oregon four years ago, hit his final shot, giving him 15 points and cutting the lead to 51-42 with 2:12 left. Rorie scored 10 of those points in the first half while Oguine scored 11 of his 15 before halftime.
“We didn’t want it to end like this, especially this soon,” Rorie said. “We thought we could come out here and get a win, but Michigan is a very good team. They’re well coached. They don’t turn the ball over, and they play good defense. So right now we’re going to soak in the good season that we did have and just get back to work in a couple of weeks.”
UM hit 11 of its 28 shot attempts before halftime but just seven makes in as many tries after intermission. The Griz limited the Wolverines to 44.7 percent shooting (21-of-47), including 5-of-16 from beyond the arc and 14-of-22 from the free throw line. UM ended the game at 32.1 percent shooting, including just 3-of-15 from beyond the arc, 1-of-8 from deep after halftime.
Michigan point guard Christian Matthews was the only player immune from shooting slumps. He hit six of his first eight shots to stake the Wolverines to a 31-28 halftime lead and finished with a game-high 20 points. Montana limited Wagner to five points but in the end, the Grizzlies did not make enough shots.
The win means Michigan moves on to play No. 6 seed Houston in Saturday’s second round. The sixth-seeded Cougars needed Rob Gray’s 3-pointer with 39.4 seconds left to take a 65-62 lead over San Diego State, then Gray’s winding layup with a single second remaining to emerge with a 67-65 win over No. 11 seed San Diego State.
Montana’s season ends at 26-8 with the 10th Big Sky Tournament and 11th Big Sky Conference championship in school history. The Grizzlies fall one win short of the 1992 team’s school record. That team, with DeCuire as it’s point guard, lost 78-68 as a No. 14 seed to No. 3 Florida State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“Their heart, their passion, their desire to perform,” DeCuire said when asked what he would remember about these Griz. “I think I have a group of young men that gave me everything they had. And you can’t say that for every team every year. And these guys were all in. They say family, and most of the time when you have a team that says family, because pretty much every team I’ve had says that, sometimes you have to define it for them.
“And I didn’t have to do that for this team. They act like family on and off the court and they play like family. And I’m proud of these young men, and, you know, we got a tough draw. And it was a tough basketball game. They showed up; they performed. They gave us everything they had. I’ll be talking about this team for a long time.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez and Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved.