MISSOULA, Montana — Only Montana senior Sayeed Pridgett, Weber State senior Jerrick Harding, Idaho senior Trevon Allen and Eastern Washington junior Jacob Davison have made more field goals during Big Sky Conference play than Kendal Manuel.
None of the aforementioned save maybe Allen have taken more jump shots this season than Manuel, the second-leading scorer behind Pridgett for the first-place Montana Grizzlies.
Yet Manuel scored the 1,000th point of a college career that began in the Pac 12 and is finishing in his home state in unlikely fashion.
With Montana already in complete control against a reeling Weber State team playing without an injured Harding, Manuel caught pass in transition from freshman combo guard Josh Vazquez. He rose up off of two feet — SWX Montana color commentator and former Griz forward Bobby Moorehead said on the broadcast he’s never seen Manuel jump off of both feet — and threw down a right-handed dunk with authority.
The throw-down gave Montana a 26-12 lead with 9:12 left in the first half and brought the crowd at Dahlberg Arena to their feet. It also was part of a 21-point night that gives Manuel 702 points in his two years at Montana and 1,025 points in his career.
“I had my adrenaline going and I feel more confident during that Idaho game; I had a nice dunk there too,” Manuel said while flashing his effusive smile. “I feel more aggressive and Coach Flo (assistant Jay Flores) was actually the one who was telling me to quit double clutching and just to go dunk it. I do do it in practice so coming out here, he was like, ‘Hey man, put it out here.’ That was the result, I guess.”
After earning Montana Gatorade Player of the Year honors and leading Billings Skyview to the Montana Class AA state title in 2015, Manuel followed his high school chum Tres Tinkle to Oregon State to play for Tres’s father and former UM coach Wayne Tinkle.
Manuel redshirted his first in Corvallis after suffering a broken fibula in his right leg in the preseason. His second year with the Beavers, he started 25 games and played in 32. In 28.8 minutes per game, he scored 248 points and averaged 7.8 points per contest.
The following year, his minutes went down by one-third and his scoring suffered as a result. He finished the 2017-18 season with 75 points, averaging 2.6 points per game.
Since returning to his home state to play for head coach Travis DeCuire, Manuel has contributed and, this season, transformed into one of the most polished scorers in the league. Last season, he earned Big Sky Newcomer of the Year and Big Sky Top Reserve honors by averaging 8.7 points per game, knocking down 57 3-pointers in the process.
And this season, despite enduring a shooting slump during UM’s non-conference schedule, Manuel has been a model of efficiency in Big Sky play. He has scored 399 points this season, averaging 15.3 points per contest. He is averaging 17.3 points per game in league play. And he is a rare college basketball player to finish with 1,000 career points despite transferring midway through his career.
“It’s special, especially knowing the rivalry between Weber State and Montana to do it in this game,” Manuel said. “And then to have it be my 1,000th point, it’s something I’m very thankful for and that I will never forget. I’m very grateful to be here.”
Manuel finished the Weber State game with 21 points, marking the fourth conference game and the sixth game this season overall Manuel has scored more than 20 points.
During Montana’s brutal non-conference schedule, a slate that included four games at schools from Power 5 conferences and an embarrassing home loss to Montana Tech, Manuel struggled to find his stroke. He shot 35.3 percent from the floor and 25.3 percent from beyond the arc. He averaged 12.1 points per game during UM’s 4-7 start.
He hit rock bottom with a 1-of-11 performance that included seven misses in eight attempts from distance in an 87-82 loss at Omaha to cap the non-conference slate.
“I thought Kendal’s shooting was one of the major factors of us struggling early in the year because Kendal wasn’t making shots,” UM sixth-year head coach Travis DeCuire said earlier this season. “His percentage was a big part of our struggle. We were shooting in the low 40s and we are a high 40s team.
“Offense, sometimes, your struggles, you start to see it on the defensive end too. And he was getting good shots but not enough good shots.
“I think right now his shot selection is as good as it can be. And I think that has led to the change.
During conference play, he struggled early as well, making just seven of his first 1 shots from the floor and 3-of-11 from beyond the arc. He started Montana’s 52-50 win over Sac State by missing seven of his first eight shots. But he rallied to finish 3-of-11 and knocked down the game-winning free throws.
Since then, Manuel has ripped the net with as much consistency as any player in the conference. Over his last 13 league games, Manuel is shooting 51.8 percent from the floor. He is shooting 47.5 percent from beyond the arc over that span, averaging nearly 18 points per game since the calendar turned to 2020.
“We know Kendal is a great player and a great shooter so we knew the field goal percentage would catch up eventually so we just trusted and believed in him, even when he wasn’t shooting well early,” Pridgett said before Wednesday’s practice. “And as time has come, he’s back and he’s on fire. He is one of those guys, you can’t let him get a good look because one he hits, he is going to be on fire.”
When he’s found a rhythm, he has torn teams apart. He shot 13-of-16 from the field and hit all three of his 3-point attempts in scoring a career-high 30 points at Northern Colorado. He drilled 5-of-7 from deep during a 27-point night in an 85-70 win over Portland State. He ripped the net four times in a row from beyond the arc in the first half of a 78-64 win over Montana State. Manuel nailed three 3-pointers in a row during a second-half surge on an 18-point night to help Montana to a 92-82 victory over Eastern Washington.
No matter the status of his shooting splits during his final season with the Grizzlies, Manuel can be found doing the same shooting workout before practice almost every single day on the UM campus.
That diligence has rubbed off on UM’s younger players. Montana has turned a major corner offensively following an 88-81 loss at Portland State. The Griz have won five games in a row by an average of 17 points per victory. During that span, role players like junior guard Timmy Falls, freshman forward Kyle Owens and Vazquez have knocked down open shots consistently.
The consistent work ethic of Manuel has set the example. And his wisdom has helped steady the minds of Montana’s other shooters.
“When he was struggling, I kept telling Josh to let it fly (he started 1-of-19 in Big Sky play) and it will come and I just kept telling myself that as well,” Manuel said. “I’ve stayed confident in myself and my routine and just let it fly. Percentages have evened it up a little bit.”
Wednesday, Manuel looked particularly focused as he repetitively knocked down jump shot after jump shot before practice. With wireless headphones in his ears, he did not miss a single mid-range jump shot off the dribble for nearly 11 minutes. And that focus is understandable considering what is on the horizon.
Montana is 12-3 in Big Sky play, closing in on a third straight regular-season Big Sky title. And on Saturday, Manuel will play in the Treasure State’s biggest rivalry one last time. The Grizzlies play at Montana State, marking the last rivalry game of Manuel’s career.
The Grizzlies have taken down the Bobcats 18 of the last 19 contests the rivals have squared off. If the Griz are to make it 19 out of 20, Manuel will surely play a key role.
“It’s kind of surreal, especially for how long I’ve been in college it feels like,” Manuel said. “It’s definitely been an exciting journey.
“I’m really trying to treat it like any other game, like I try to approach ever game as a big game. But it will be fun to play in front of everybody from Billings and everybody from Montana again in this game. Hopefully we can keep it rolling.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.