With the two most powerful anchors in the Big Sky Conference both sidelined, Montana decided it wanted to run with the fastest team in the league.
For 20 minutes, the Grizzlies ran Weber State into the ground.
But pushing the pace against Jerrick Harding and the Wildcats is a risky proposition. Visiting Montana found out full well how dangerous WSU’s slashing southpaw can be on Thursday night in Ogden, Utah.
Montana senior center Jamar Akoh did not make the trip south down I-15. Weber State senior center Zach Braxton missed his second straight contest. The Griz and the ‘Cats altered their inside-out styles, instead engaging in a up and down contest played at a breakneck pace.
UM’s athleticism overwhelmed the hosts for the second straight time this season in the first half. And the second half saw Weber State show its toughness, grit and explosiveness.
Harding scored 27 of his game-high 30 points in the second half and the Wildcats rallied from a 20-point first half deficit to cut the lead to one point with a minute to play.
But like he has for the last three games with Akoh nursing with a knee injury, Sayeed Pridgett delivered in the clutch. The versatile, unorthodox UM junior posted a double-double by halftime during a career night. And his conversion in the lane out of a timeout with 30 seconds to play gave Montana the breathing room it needed to hold on for an 83-80 win at the Dee Events Center.
“Adversity toughens your heart and that’s all I talked about to these guys in the pre-game,” UM fifth-year head coach Travis DeCuire told The Voice of the Griz Riley Corcoran. “We’ve been through a lot. We are prepared for this, to go to battle, through adversity, through change, through unexpected situations and we just have to make the most of it.
The victory is Montana’s fourth straight over Weber State. The season sweep of the Wildcats — Montana built a 32-10 first-half lead in a 75-68 win over WSU in Missoula last month — extends UM’s win streak to eight games overall and moves Montana to 11-2 in Big Sky play, 18-6 overall.
The sweep of WSU is Montana’s first since 1992 when DeCuire was a Griz player.
“This is a tough place to win,” DeCuire said. “It’s a lot like our place. Any time you can go in and get one is incredible for your group. That’s two in a row for us now.
Pridgett, Montana’s slashing, strong-finishing 6-foot-5 weapon, continued his stellar play in the Beehive State. On the heels of scoring 40 combined points on 16-of-19 shooting in UM’s wins over Idaho and Eastern Washington last weekend — the Oakland native earned Big Sky Player of the Week for the second time earlier this week — Pridgett scored 13 points and grabbed 11 rebounds to pace Montana to a 40-24 halftime lead.
Senior point guard Ahmaad Rorie scored 11 of his 13 points in the first 20 minutes. Junior Kendal Manuel scored 10 of his 16 points off the bench before the break.
In the second half, Pridgett continued to capitalize on his various mismatches, finishing the night by tying a career-high with 29 points and setting a career-high with 16 rebounds. He converted 11 of his 18 field goal attempts, including nailing all three of his 3-point tries. Over his last three games, Pridgett has scored 69 points on 37 shots. He is shooting 72.9 percent over that stretch.
“I’ve been hard on him for a couple of years to try to get him to do things a certain way,” DeCuire said. “He’s always been talented. He walked into my office in April and asked for trust. We always talk about how that goes two ways. I said, ‘You got it but you know what comes with that. A level of expectations.’ He’s owned it as well as anyone I’ve probably ever coached.”
UM’s suffocating, high-pressure defense forced the Wildcats into misses on 13 of their first 17 shot attempts. Senior Michael Oguine’s tip-in with eight minutes, 24 seconds left in the first half helped the Griz double up the hosts, 28-14.
A 12-2 run that included two Pridgett buckets along with 3-pointers from Rorie and sophomore Timmy Falls gave the Griz a 40-20 lead with 3:16 until intermission.
This week's ESPN Roundtable, a collaboration with ESPN Missoula and Skyline Sports, features Montana junior Sayeed Pridgett talking about his recent Big Sky Player of the Week, growing up in The Bay, Mr. Mean, sneakers and… https://t.co/MU7u7wxPP4
— Tootell & Nuanez (@1029ESPN) February 14, 2019
In Montana’s 75-68 win in Missoula, the Griz mounted a 20-0 run to take a 32-10 lead. Weber State rallied out of the locker room. Thursday, the script was almost identical.
The Griz limited Harding to three first-half points on 1-of-5 shooting. After the break, the second-leading scorer in the league showed his entire repertoire, bursting his way to 27 second-half points to reach 30 points for the third time this season. WSU forward Brekkott Chapman, a former Utah transfer, hit three of his five made 3-pointers in the second half and finished with 20 points to bolster the rally.
“Our backs are going to be against the wall no matter what game we play, it is what it is,” DeCuire said. “I told these guys early and (associate head coach Chris) Cobb made a big deal about how these guys were going to make runs and there was going to be adversity within the game and it wasn’t going to stop. We were going to have to play through it continuously.”
Harding scored all seven of WSU’s points during a spurt that helped the Wildcats cut the deficit to single digits early in the second half. And he scored 16 points in the final 11 minutes, including completing a five-point possession due to a technical foul that helped shave the margin to eight with eight minutes to play. Harding’s layup with 2:22 left cut the lead to 77-74 and capped his explosive second half.
WSU junior Cody John, who missed last season with a back injury, hit a tough contested shot in the lane to bring WSU down one, 79-78 before Pridgett’s last bucket. John, who finished with 16 points, hit another shot in the lane to make it 81-80 with 14 seconds left. But Manuel sealed the win with a pair of free throws for the final margin.
“Three years ago, I would’ve gone in those huddles and dropped a few F-bombs and used my intensity to create energy and toughness,” DeCuire said. “But now that I have my guys, we’ve been hardened either through life before we came to Montana or through practice every day. Now I don’t need to do that. What I need to do is be calm and give them confidence and stick to the script and let them be the ones with the fire. That’s exactly what happened tonight.”
Montana plays at Idaho State on Saturday. Montana State posted an 84-76 win over ISU in Pocatello on Thursday night.
Photos by Brooks Nuanez & Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved.