RENO, Nevada — Michael Oguine mimicked a soaring airplane to punctuate his breakaway dunk following yet another rip of the Big Sky’s Most Valuable Player, a fitting symbol as his Montana Grizzlies were flying high.
With Montana in the midst of an astounding tear, Timmy Falls backpedaled clapping his hands, screaming, “Come on boys, we need another one.” It seemed an impossible task to keep stringing stops together against a team led by the most prolific scorer in the history of the league. But Montana never let up.
Ahmaad Rorie hit a pull-up jump shot in the paint, the final dagger in a second half full of them for the Grizzlies. As the ball went through the net, the normally stoic Montana point guard shot a piercing look to the court side seat of his trainer and mentor J.R. Wong, the latest big shot in a tournament where the stud point guard refused to let his fade from the goal they so covet.
The top-seeded Grizzlies refused to be denied, overcoming an 11-point halftime deficit by eviscerating third-seeded Eastern Washington with an unbelievable defensive stretch. Montana notched18 stops in 19 possessions to turn a seven-point deficit into a 17-point lead on the way to a conclusive 82-65 victory in the finals of the Big Sky Tournament in Reno.
“You can see by the three games we just played, we came back in each one and that shows everyone gave us their best shot, everyone had a ton of respect for us and you expect that when you are the No. 1 seed,” Oguine said, a piece of freshly cut net tucked behind his left ear. “It says a lot about this team to be able to come back from behind three straight days. It shows we were here for a reason at the top of this conference.
“We learned a lot about ourselves during this tournament, we learned a lot about ourselves during this season and I feel like there’s no better feeling going into this NCAA Tournament than the way we are feeling right now.”
When the final buzzer sounded and the Grizzlies’ 10th Big Sky Tournament championship had been secured, the men in maroon all surrounded Fabijan Krlsovic, the lone senior on the roster and the heart and soul of the tight-knit team. They chanted up and down as the coronation for the league’s first place team from the opening weekend of January became complete.
“This is really special,” Krslovic said following his second double-double of the tournament, this one with 11 points and 10 rebounds. “I remember my freshman year, I thought we had that one locked in (a loss in the championship game in Missoula to EWU) so this has taken a little longer to settle in. I wasn’t going to let that feeling creep in again.
“This is unbelievable. This is the reason I came to this program. I came to go to tournaments. We have put in so much work top to bottom and it’s a great thing to be a part of this group.”
As streamers fell from the Reno Events Center rafters, Montana head coach Travis DeCuire reached into the sea of Griz supporters who passionately cheers UM to three comeback victories in three days to grab his five-year-old daughter, Tamia.
The former All-Big Sky point guard presented a vision of unwavering toughness and effort when he took over the Griz program four years ago, a premonition he saw play out in front of his eyes as his team harassed Big Sky MVP Bogdan Bliznyuk into six second-half turnovers during what became a 26-4 run.
“When we recruit, we always tell these guys that it’s a chess board to us,” DeCuire said. “When we put the pieces together, we will have something special but it’s going to take some time. I think what you saw this weekend was an example of that. We came from behind three straight days. We fought through adversity, we believed in each other and we fought for each other.
“The next thing for us was to convince these guys that defense wins championships because we recruited a bunch of offensive players, guys who put the ball in the basket that had never been asked to shut anyone down. Today, you saw that vision play out.”
DeCuire took over one of the league’s most solid programs from Wayne Tinkle, now the head coach at Oregon State. He became the first Griz head coach to win 20 games in his first two seasons, a lofty accomplishment considering the coaching tree DeCuire is a part of. But DeCuire’s third season ended in disappointment as the Griz stumbled down the stretch following a 5-1 start in conference play, losing in their first game in Reno last season to rival Idaho.
Last spring, DeCuire and his coaching staff “tore these guys down”, to hear him describe it, physically and mentally destroying the Griz only to build them back up. In August, DeCuire learned of the passing of Delvon Anderson, a former Big Sky MVP at Montana who paired with DeCuire to lead the Griz to the NCAA Tournament in 1992.
That death came less than a week after Jud Heathcote, the godfather of Montana basketball who paved the path for Jim Bradenburg, Mike Montgomery, Stew Morrill, Blaine Taylor, Larry Krystkowiak, Tinkle and now DeCuire.
DeCuire endured the heartbreak and navigated his team through muddy waters during a non-conference schedule that included a win at Pitt and losses in which UM had chances against Penn State, Stanford and Washington. The Griz did not come to play in the first half of what ended up a 71-68 loss at Georgia State and sat at 5-4.
Montana’s head coach began to preach “compete with desperation” every single day. Once Montana began to fulfill the request, the Grizzlies forged an identity as the league’s toughest, most aggressive squad.
On Saturday, DeCuire made the proper halftime adjustments to help his team cut a 40-29 deficit to two thanks to a 9-0 run in the first two minutes after intermission, then witnessed one of the greatest defensive performances in the history of the conference tournament as Montana punched its first ticket to the Big Dance since 2013.
“It brought back some memories,” DeCuire said when asked about the post-game celebration. ”It’s been a hard year for me. Emotionally, going into the year, I lost a very close friend who I played in an NCAA tournament with. We dedicated this season to him. Sometimes when you do that, you put pressure on yourself to be successful.
“I wanted this for Delvon Anderson as much as anyone because I believed in what we call the tradition of Montana. He plays as much of an important role in that as any player who has ever put on this jersey. The heart and passion he played with is what I search for in every young man I coach and I try to pull it out of them.”
Montana junior Michael Oguine hit all five of his shots after halftime, including a crucial 3-pointer from the corner to cap UM’s run out of the locker room. Oguine, who finished with 21 points and earned tournament MVP honors, got to the rim and finished on consecutive possessions to give Montana its first double-digit lead with 5:35 left.
His strip of Bliznyuk into his fast-break dunk put an exclamation point on a stretch that saw the Griz hold EWU to one Bliznuk field goal during 11 minutes and 24 seconds of jaw-dropping defense.
“We all bought in as a team,” Oguine said. “We all know that defense is what we hang our hats on. First half, they were making a bunch of shots and we had to make adjustments. Myself personally, I came out and I was really flat. But my teammates were there for me. Defense is contagious. We started getting stops.”
Bliznyuk, the league’s regular-season MVP and the recently new record holder of the Big Sky’s all-time scoring record, finished in the lane for EWU’s final bucket of a first half that saw the Eagles shoot 53 percent, including 8-of-13 from beyond the arc.
After halftime, DeCuire scrapped his high trapping defense that held Bliznuk to seven points on seven shots but led to an array of open looks for EWU’s sharpshooting youngsters, Jack Perry and Jacob Davison. Instead, DeCuire put Rorie, his All-Big Sky point guard and leading MVP candidate, on Bliznyuk man to man in the full court.
Guarding his former AUU teammates, Rorie proved to be the linchpin in a swarming defensive effort that made EWU’s leader turn the ball over half a dozen times in a 10-minute span and allowed the Eagles to make just one 3-pointer in 10 attempts after the break.
“It was an emotional game and we had to fight through adversity,” Rorie said. “When I hit that shot and I pointed at JR, I knew we were going dancing.”
Perry’s third and final 3-pointer came with 14:38 left to play and gave EWU a 50-43 lead. The Griz would allow just a Bliznyuk jumper with 6:33 left between Perry’s 3-pointer and Mason Peatling’s put-back with 3:14 left. The Griz turned the seven-point deficit into a 71-56 advantage.
“I got out-coached,” EWU first-year head coach Shantay Legans said. “They were doubling Bogdan, tripling him and I didn’t have the guys where they needed to be. That’s all on me.”
Bliznyuk finished with 15 points on 14 shots to go with seven rebounds and four assists. The two-time first-team All-Big Sky selection has 2,142 points in his career, 40 more than the previous record held by Idaho’s Orlando Lightfoot since DeCuire’s senior season at Montana in 1994.
Despite the graduation of program pillars like Venky Jois and Jacob Wiley, the latter last season’s Big Sky MVP, Bliznyuk led the young Eagles under a first-year head coach on an impressive stretch run. After a 3-8 start, EWU finished 13-5 in league play to earn the No. 3 seed, winning eight straight down to earn the championship game bid. EWU is now 20-14 with shot at earning a CBI bid, Legans said.
“I have really enjoyed this season, especially with the things we had to overcome,” Bliznyuk said. “We had a slow start and injuries, figuring things out with the rotations. It’s been a lot of fun, it’s been tough. I’m really proud of this group.”
UM will now try to stop the longest drought in Division I of any of the 32 conferences without an NCAA Tournament win. The last time a team from the Big Sky saw a member squad win in the Big Dance came when Larry Krystowiak led Montana to a win over Nevada in the 2006 Tournament.
ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has Montana as a No. 14 seed going to Wichita, Kansas to play third-seeded Michigan State in his most recent bracket projection.
“These guys are recruited to get into the tournament and compete,” DeCuire said. “It’s never been about just getting to the tournament. That’s why in November and December we play the teams we play because we expect to play those teams in March. Now we’ve gotten there.
“It all comes down to seeding but I do feel like we have the talent to compete and perform in the NCAA Tournament and I look forward to the opportunity to see what these guys can do.”
Regardless of the draw, the Griz are going dancing for the first time under DeCuire after a historic 26-win season that continues as Montana shoots to become the next Cinderella of March Madness.
“There’s a lot of expectations that come with this seat and I love it and I love competing but I knew the day would come where we had to accomplish something for me to feel this pride,” DeCuire said. “Today, I feel it. We have accomplished something special. But we still have work to do.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved. Photo gallery to come….