If replacing four record-setting seniors isn’t hard enough, the Montana men’s basketball team also navigated one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country leading up to the New Year.
Since the beginning of Big Sky Conference play, a team that replaced a quartet of stalwarts with a rotation that includes three true freshmen has turned the proverbial corner, at least at the end of games.
Thursday night in Cedar City, Utah, Montana played tough defense for the full 40 minutes, including near the end of the contest in moving to 3-0 in league play. The Griz let a 10-point lead shrink to two midway through the second half before following its three seniors to a 60-58 victory in front of 2,059 at America First Event Center.
Both teams shot 33 percent in the first half as Montana took a 26-21 lead to the break. Griz senior Kendal Manuel hit the first shot of the second half from beyond the arc and senior Sayeed Pridgett scored on the following possession to give the Griz the first double-digit lead of the night.
Over the next eight minutes, Southern Utah chipped away, cutting the two-time defending league champions’ lead to one possession three different times. Every time Montana needed a bucket in a ugly, plodding game, one of its seniors stepped up.
John Knight III scores from the charity stripe to cut the UM lead to 44-42 with 9:21 left. Manuel and Jared Samuelson answered with consecutive 3-pointers. Two possessions later, Pridgett pushed the lead to eight, 52-44, with 6:37 left.
Samuelson, a Billings native who started his career at Montana, ripped apart the Frontier Conference the previous two seasons at Rocky Mountain College in his hometown, is now playing his final season as a graduate transfer for the Griz scored a career –high 21 points. His final field goal on a night in which he made 9-of-14 from the floor and 3-of-4 from deep kept UM’s lead at 56-48 with 3:10 left.
Pridgett, a first-team All-Big Sky pick and the league’s preseason MVP, scored a pair of layups in the final 70 seconds to keep SUU at bay. Pridgett finished with 17 points on 7-of-17 shooting, shaking off a second straight poor shooting night. Pridgett, who earned Big Sky Player of the Week during the first two games of league play, chipped in eight rebounds.
And Manuel, himself a native of Billings, followed up hitting the go-ahead free throws in the final two seconds to lift UM to a 52-50 win on Monday by scoring 17 points and hitting three of UM’s six made 3-pointers.
Kyle Owens and Timmy Falls combined for the other six points scored by the Griz.
Montana shot 50 percent after halftime, notching nine assists on 14 made field goals. The Griz harassed Knight into five of SUU’s 15 turnvoers and the Griz held the Thunderbirds to 39 percent shooting in the game to remain unbeaten in league play.
Maizen Fausett scored nine of his team-high 15 points and grabbed 11 rebounds for Southern Utah. Energy expert Harrison Butler came off the bench to score 12 points and grab 11 rebounds as SUU won the battle of the glass 35-28. Five of Fausett’s nine second-half rebounds came offensively.
The Griz play at Northern Colorado on Saturday.
Photos by Brooks Nuanez or Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved.