MISSOULA, Montana — The last time Montana State defeated Montana in men’s basketball, Tyler Hall put forth an unforgettable performance that included an array of unbelievable shots on the way to 37 points.
Saturday night in front of 7,040 at Dahlberg Arena, Harald Frey looked like he might replicate Hall’s heroics from late in 2017. Frey, who came into the game shooting just 30.2 percent from beyond the 3-point arc in Big Sky Conference play, ripped the net on four of his first five attempts from beyond the arc.
Montana State’s unflappable, competitive senior point guard had 26 points by halftime. And when he banged his seventh 3-pointer, including at least his third from beyond 25 feet, he matched Hall’s point total of 37, a career high for the native of Oslo, Norway.
The problem for the Bobcats remained what it has been for the last decade in a rivalry that continues to become more and more lopsided in favor of the Grizzlies.
In the first half, Montana ripped off a 13-3 run to overtake Montana State’s only lead of the first 20 minutes. MSU did a good job on Montana catalyst Sayeed Pridgett early but the senior league MVP candidate made the right pass on seemingly every possession as the Griz nailed 10-of-14 shots from beyond the 3-point arc and shot 63.6 percent from the floor overall in building a 54-39 lead.
The ‘Cats locked in defensively in the second half and Frey continued to put his team on his back. But in the end, the result was the same as it has been almost every time over the last 10 years in a rivalry Montana has fully owned.
Pridgett scored 12 points after halftime and eight of his team-high 24 points in the final six minutes of the game to help lift the Grizzlies to a 78-64 victory in front of a raucous, partisan crowd at Dahlberg Arena on Saturday night.
“Coming into the game, we know this game is bigger than us,” Pridgett said. “The community is here. We are not only playing for the Griz. We are playing for the people around us. We can’t lose this one because it means so much for the people around us.”
The victory is Montana’s 18th in the last 19 outings against Montana State. MSU’s only two wins between 2010 and this winter came seven years apart (2010, 2017). The only other Bobcat triumph in the last decade came in the regular-season finale of the 2010 season.
“We challenge ourselves to play harder than our opponent, as hard as we possibly can and we knew if we focused on that and shared the ball, we’d probably be fine tonight,” UM sixth-year head coach Travis DeCuire said after moving to 10-1 against MSU in his coaching career. “I think we did both of those things tonight about as well as we have done them this year.”
DeCuire’s team snapped a two-game losing streak with Saturday’s victory. UM lost 87-85 in overtime at Weber State a week ago before falling 88-81 at Portland State on Thursday.
“More sense of desperation and it was a quick turnaround so there wasn’t a lot of time to get that taste out of your mouth, so maybe that quick turnaround was actually beneficial for us,” DeCuire said. “But the biggest thing was getting back to defending the way the Griz defend. The last two games, we gave up way too many high percentage shots and tonight I thought we did a really good job.”
Frey’s 37 points surpassed his previous career-high of 34 set earlier this season against Utah State. His seven made 3-pointer are one of the top six totals in program history. But he fell to 1-6 against the Griz in his career with Saturday’s loss.
“To me, this is the most fun game of the year,” Frey said. “You want to play in games that matter. It’s a special environment here in Missoula and in Bozeman. We have to learn from it. We have a bunch of guys who are new to this environment. You have to give them credit. They came out really hot too. They made shots and we couldn’t weather the storm.”
Frey drew eight fouls in the first half alone, getting to the free throw line and knocking down 12 of his 13 attempts from the stripe. He also swished those four 3-point shots and scored 26 points before the break.
But the Griz reigned from all over the court. UM senior Kendal Manuel, the best shooter on the two-time defending Big Sky champions’ roster, hit all four of his attempts from beyond the arc in the first half. Other Montana players who have not been nearly as reliable from deep capitalized on the open looks created by Pridgett’s ability to draw attention.
“At the beginning, they were double teaming me so I was telling Coach to let me get down on the block so I could create a mismatch for our team,” Pridgett said after dishing out five assists, all in the first half. “If they are doubling me, they are leaving somebody open. I wanted to take advantage of it.”
Pridgett, who came into the game 3-of-18 from deep in league play and shooting 20 percent from distance overall, hit both of his 3-point tries. Freshman Josh Vazquez, who entered the game 4-of-23 from beyond the arc in league play, hit both of his triple tries. True freshman Kyle Owens, who was 5-of-22 from 3 before the game, got in on the action as well, drilling a triple and hitting a second shot with his toe on the line.
“We certainly wished they missed a couple and that would’ve helped us but kudos to those guys,” Frey said. “They made the shots they needed to.”
All of that helped Montana race to 54 points and a commanding 15-point lead despite Frey’s outburst. The point total was UM’s highest in the first half this season.
“It’s not very often that our guys get shots with both feet set and we got those shots tonight,” DeCuire said. “It was a matter of time before we had these outings.”
After halftime, Montana State locked in defensively, switching out of the variety of zones used in the first half into more man-to-man. The Griz shot just 33.3 percent and the lone 3-pointer made in five attempts came from freshman Derrick Carter-Hollinger.
The Bobcats whittled the Griz lead to 66-60 on an Amin Adamu jumper with 7;14 left following Carter-Hollinger’s triple. Less than three minutes later, the Griz led 72-60 after Pridgett scored buckets in the lane on three consecutive possessions.
“When I first got here, we lost and that didn’t feel to good and a lot of people were kind of mad at us,” Pridgett said, referring to the night when he was a true freshman where Hall carried MSU to victory. “That didn’t really matter because we had a chance to get back at those guys and we have kept it going for our school.”
A pair of Owens free throws and a put-back by Hollinger gave the Griz all the cushion they would need. Montana State won the first 13 minutes of the second half 21-6. But the Griz closed the game on a 12-4 run to move to 8-3 in Big Sky Conference play.
Montana State enters the midpoint of the conference slate with a 5-5 league mark and an 11-10 record overall. The Bobcats host Idaho on Thursday.
“You have to get your tail kicked,” MSU first-year head coach Danny Sprinkle said. “It’s not going to be easy. There are going to be days like this. I hope this hurts like hell until midnight.
“Once midnight hits, we have to rinse this off and we have to get better tomorrow and on Monday. Tonight was not the championship. But we saw what you have to do to play at a championship level. That’s something we have to work torward.”
Montana’s revamped lineup no longer includes stout 6-foot-8 center Jamar Akoh, a dominant force who ate Montana State alive every time he could avoid foul trouble in rivalry games. The Bobcats entered the game with a potential advantage with a front line anchored by junior center Devin Kirby (6-foot-11) and sophomore power forward Jubrile Belo (6-foot-9).
But Belo picked up a pair of offensive fouls in less than five minutes. He took a seat for the final 15:29 of the first half.
“We knew he wouldn’t pass the ball when he got it in there,” DeCuire said. “We knew he would try to score. Our team defense was at a high level tonight and our guys did a good job of helping each other out. He got some pretty good drop offs that could’ve been dunks and we did a good job of taking that away.”
He picked up two more fouls less than three minutes into the second half. He finished the game with no points and four rebounds in 13 minutes of action.
“God bless him, he had zero points. I don’t think he’s done that in his entire life,” Sprinkle said.
Outside of Frey, Montana State shot 9-of-30 from the floor and just 1-of-5 from beyond the arc. Adamu finished with nine points on 3-of-12 shooting.
Manuel did not score in the second half but the rest of his teammates picked up the slack. Owens scored a career-high 14 points on 4-of-6 shooting and also hit five free throws.
“I think it’s probably the most fun game I’ve ever played in,” Owens said. “The arena, the atmosphere, everybody cheering, the whole gym. I think that’s the best place to be in.”
The Grizzlies now enter the second half of their league schedule chasing a third straight regular-season title. Montana hosts Eastern Washington on Thursday.
“We will have another tough Monday practice,” DeCuire said. “We need to continue to remind ourselves how hard we need to work to continue to be successful, whether that’s game by game or not. When you are on top of the standings and you are young, you have a hard time not looking into the future. For us, we have to continue to take it one day at a time, whether it’s practice or games.”