All season Montana searched for ways to overcome the various adversities it confronted. Facing perhaps its most difficult challenge, the Grizzlies answered the call for a moment only to see a rival steal their ticket to the Big Dance for the third consecutive season.
Behind the relentless effort of senior Walter Wright, Montana overcame a 13-point first-half deficit in its quarterfinal matchup with Idaho in the Big Sky Conference Tournament. Despite taking a late lead, Montana will not play into mid-March, however, falling short of a conference title for the fourth straight year after losing to Idaho 81-77 in Reno in Thursday’s quarterfinals.
Wright hit a 15-foot jumper with 2:21 remaining to give Montana a 72-71 lead, its first advantage since nearly seven minutes into what became an intense third meeting between the border rivals. Idaho regained the lead and with seven seconds left on the clock, Wright raced into the lane and went up for a floater that had been so effective during his two years at Montana. But Victor Sanders reached out his long arms and deflected it into the hands of Trevon Allen, who calmly knocked down two free throws to push Idaho into a semifinal meeting with top-seeded North Dakota.
“It came down to who wanted it more to be honest,” Montana coach Travis DeCuire said in a post game interview with KGVO Radio. DeCuire’s third season with his alma mater ended at 16-16. “They (Idaho) were physical, they got after it, they were emotional. It was a little bit of a rollercoaster ride. But all credit to my guys for fighting back the way they did to get themselves back in it and take a lead.”
The ride DeCuire referenced was not all that unlike the one his team had experienced throughout winter. It began with an 0-4 record that was quickly forgotten when Montana won five of its first six conference games to briefly move atop the Big Sky standings. But a tumultuous weekend on the Pacific Coast kick started a four-game slide as rumors of chemistry issues surfaced.
Wright was suspended for a 1.5 games. Ahmaad Rorie was suspended for one. Sayeed Pridgett was held out of one and the Grizzlies tumbled to sixth in the league standings. Montana was swept by Sacramento State for the first time and lost to rival Montana State for the first time since 2010. But a late season road sweep earned the Grizzlies their first regular season win at Weber State since 2004 and some hope that they had turned the corner at the right time in what DeCuire called his toughest season as a coach.
“It’s been a difficult one, it’s been a long one,” DeCuire said. “But we grow as a program, as individuals, as a staff and me as a coach. We all grow from all the adversity and the experiences we’ve had. We’ve got great young men in our program and I look forward to seeing them all being successful as we move on.”
Montana graduates seniors Wright, Mario Dunn, Brandon Gfeller and Jack Lopez, who in their final game combined for 28 points, 22 of which came from Wright.
Idaho’s lead fluctuated throughout the opening 10 minutes of the second half, growing to as much as nine and shrinking to as little as four until Wright sliced through the lane and dumped off to Fabijan Krslovic for an easy dunk to get Montana within two. Still, the Vandals held the Griz at bay until Rorie sunk a three to snap out of funk and then Wright hit another to tie it up.
But Idaho answered every Montana run, knocking down 15 of its 20 second-half free throws and putting the ball in the hands of Sanders, who hit two difficult shots along the baseline in the game’s final two minutes to provide small leads.
“He’s our go-to guy and he has been all year long,” Idaho coach Don Verlin said of Sanders, who finished with 19 points “ … What I was really proud of was how hard we fought and how we sustained our effort.”
Montana went back and forth with Idaho early, taking a 16-15 lead on Wright’s runner with 13:39 remaining in the first half. But Idaho responded with a prolonged 21-7 run as it fought through the Grizzlies’ backcourt pressure and dominated around the rim. As it hit 81 percent of its shots over the first 15 minutes, the Vandals relied on Sanders and post Arkadiy Mkrtychayan to take the biggest lead either team experienced.
Montana harassed Idaho’s guards throughout and cut its deficit to four after Wright set up an easy Jared Samuelson dunk and then hit a three. But as the buzzer softly sounded, Idaho’s Brayon Blake drilled a fall-away three.
“I think that three at the end of the half was the difference maker for us though,” DeCuire said. “We’ve got all the momentum, we’ve got them where we want them. I think if they miss that shot and we come out score the first possession and it’s two-point game and a different story and actually the difference in the game.”
NOTES: Rorie finished with 16, Michael Oguine scored 13 and Krslovic had 11. … Lopez scored six in his final game. Neither Dunn nor Gfeller scored. … Idaho out-rebounded Montana 32-24. … Mkrtychyan also scored 19 for Idaho, which put five players in double figures.