Brian Fish knew his Bobcats would have to neutralize Martin Breunig and Walter Wright if Montana State wanted to snap its long losing streak to the rival Montana Grizzlies.
On Saturday night in front of a raucous Dahlberg Arena crowd of 6,522, Montana State did just that. With Breunig battling foul trouble and Wright fighting through strep throat, Montana’s Brandon Gfeller and Michael Oguine answered the bell.
Oguine, a true freshman from Chatsworth, California, scored a career-high 27 points, Gfeller drilled 5-of-6 3-pointers and tied a career high with 24 points and Montana held off a late Bobcat rally for an 87-78 victory on Saturday night.
“We’ve been figuring out how to win games with Martin having an off night or Walter Wright having an off night,” said Montana second-year head coach Travis DeCuire. “We’ve been showing signs of a team that can win a game without Martin going for 30 or Walter shooting 55 percent from 3. We knew we had it in us.
“Sometimes people think you are coming with the queen but tonight we came with the rook.”
Breunig, a 6-foot-8 senior power forward, entered the game averaging 20.7 points and 8.9 rebounds per game in Big Sky Conference play. He is shooting 69.6 percent against league competition. MSU freshman Sam Neumann harassed Breunig into three offensive fouls in the game’s first 25 minutes. Breunig ended up with nine points, seven rebounds and just six shot attempts in 24 minutes.
“They were double-teaming Martin from the baseline side and Coach had a great game plan going in,” said Gfeller, who scored eight of UM’s first 10 and hit two 3-pointers out of halftime to give Montana a 47-34 lead, its largest. “My teammates did a good job executing and setting screens to get me open for 3-point shots and we did a good job of moving the ball.”
Wright, Montana’s lightning-quick junior point guard, entered the game shooting 48.8 percent from beyond the arc in league games. He is averaging 15 points and 4.7 assists in conference contests. On Saturday, he scored nine points in 20 minutes but turned the ball over six times and notched just one assist.
“Our two leading scorers had an off night scoring the ball but Coach gave me the confidence to go out and make plays for the team,” said Oguine, who scored 21 points in Montana’s 80-72 win over MSU in Bozeman last month. “I tried to find Brandon because Brandon had a hot hand. I wanted to play through him, get to the paint, be aggressive and force them to call the fouls.”
The win is Montana’s 12th straight over the rival Bobcats, a streak that dates back to February 27, 2010. The victory is also Montana’s 12th in 14 conference outings, helping the Griz to a 17-8 record overall. Weber State posted a 77-74 win at Northern Arizona on Saturday to keep pace with UM atop the standings.
“It’s a big rivalry game, there’s a lot of hype heading into this game and it was an awesome turnout,” Gfeller said after tying a career high set earlier this season in a 90-84 in at Northern Arizona. “This was a great crowd tonight and Montana State is a very good team this year. They are much improved. It was an exciting game. Being on top of the standings is great right now but at the end of the day, we want to win the whole thing. Right now, it’s not that big of the deal.”
MSU true freshman Tyler Hall drilled seven 3-pointers and tried to answer each of Oguine’s slashes or Gfeller’s long-distance swishes with big shots of his own. He scored nine points during a run that helped MSU erase a 13-point deficit.
Senior Marcus Colbert chipped in 18 points, eight rebounds and five assists. His old-fashioned 3-point play with seven minutes, seven seconds to play cut the UM lead to 71-67 but Montana would lead by at least six for the rest of the evening. Colbert fell to 0-8 in his career against the Griz.
“It came down to stops,” Colbert said. “We didn’t get a lot of stops. They shot a lot of free throws and we can’t guard them at the line.
“This didn’t go how I wanted it to go. It’s fun, this is a fun game. You always get up for this game. We just wanted different results.”
The loss drops Montana State to 7-7 in Big Sky play, 12-14 overall. MSU has two more road games with a trip down I-15 to play Weber State and Idaho State next weekend before returning home for home games against North Dakota and Northern Colorado to finish the season. Fish is now 0-4 against the Griz.
“Let’s cut to the chase: Montana and Weber are the two teams in this league that are a little better than everyone else,” Fish said. “We have to keep developing. We’ve come a long way in the last 45 days. We have to continue to bring guys along.
“Any time you can screw a play up and be able to throw it into Breunig, it makes you look like a really good coach. They’ve got that. No disrepct to Travis. He’s a friend. When you have a layup maker in there, you can make some mistakes and come through it. Both Montana and Weber (center Joel Bolomboy) have the dominant big guy along with Eastern Washington and Venky Jois. You look and those three teams are on top.”
Oguine’s first bucket tied the game at 12 early. Back-to-back 3-pointers by MSU junior Sarp Gobeloglu sparked an 11-3 run by the Bobcats to push the Montana State advantage to 23-15 midway through the first half, MSU’s largest. The Bobcats forced eight Griz turnovers in the first 10 minutes of the game by trapping all of Montana’s ball screens and pinching and doubling Breunig all night.
“The first time we played them, I thought we stood passive too much,” Fish said. “I thought the first time we played, we stood back and watched the game. I wanted to change our approach there and be more aggressive. Good teams, it will bother them for a minute but they will make adjustments. We did it, got after them, got us involved early.”
Oguine scored 11 points during a run that helped UM turn the eight-point deficit into a 33-31 lead. The run reached 14-2 as Oguine converted four of his 12 made free throws. He finished with 17 first-half points as Montana took a 41-34 lead into the break.
Out of halftime, Gfeller drilled two more 3-pointers to give UM its biggest lead. Hall hit two triples and hit three free throws during a run that helped MSU cut the 13-point lead to a 54-53 UM advantage with 12:41 to play. DeCuire responded by calling a flurry of isolation plays for Wright, who emptied the tank but scored seven of his nine points during a two-minute stretch. His 3-pointer with 7:26 left pushed the Montana lead to 71-64.
Oguine slashed into the lane for his final two buckets and Montana hit eight free throws in the game’s final six minutes to seal the win. UM shot 30-of-42 from the charity stripe overall, including 20-of-30 after halftime. Oguine converted 12-of-14 freebies. Officials called 36 fouls after halftime and 55 fouls in the game total.
Next week, Montana and Montana State hits the road for what has become the toughest trip in the league. Weber State is the only 20-win team in the league and holds an 11-1 record at the Dee Special Events Center. Idaho State has been one of the surprises in the league; the Bengals won four league games last season but have a 9-5 mark in league play this season, the Big Sky’s fourth-best. ISU is 8-2 at home.
When asked if he agrees with Fish’s assertion that the Griz are the league’s best team, DeCuire said the results are to be determined.
“We’ve got the best records but we haven’t played them(Weber State), we haven’t played Idaho State yet,” DeCuire said. “Weber had my vote going in. That’s who I picked to win the league. I think Randy Rahe is probably the best coach in this conference. No one will disagree that Weber is one of the best teams in the conference. We have the toughest road trip in the conference coming up so we will find out about ourselves when we get there.”