Forty-seven minutes was all Riley Corcoran, Montana’s radio play-by-play announcer, could wait before signing off without the input of Montana head coach Travis DeCuire on his team’s 67-65 loss Thursday night to Sacramento State.
DeCuire, who lectured his team long after the Hornets completed their first ever season sweep of Montana with their first ever regular-season win in Missoula, never came down from the locker room. It was almost an hour after the heart wrenching defeat before solemn-faced players slowly trickled into a long-emptied Dahlberg Arena.
“A lot of things; we have to have better culture. We have to play for each other more, just stuff like that,” said Ahmaad Rorie, summarizing his coach’s message. “But the year is not over. We’re going to have a tough road and we might be a bad seed in the tournament. Stuff like that, but nothing we can’t fix. We just have to move on.”
Montana held a nine-point lead with 16:45 to go on a steal and dunk by sophomore guard Michael Oguine that energized the Grizzly bench and the Dahlberg crowd that spent most of its time loudly disagreeing with the three-man officiating crew. But as it gave the ball to Justin Strings, a burly yet athletic forward, Sacramento State slowly erased the deficit and handed Montana its third home loss in its last four games, dropping Montana to 8-6 in Big Sky Conference play.
Strings went to work early, and didn’t stop until he snuck in a layup that put the Hornets ahead 66-65 with 22 seconds left. The bucket accounted for Strings’ 20th and 21st points in a second half that saw him go 9 for 13 from the floor and 3 for 5 from the free throw line.
Contrary to the night he had almost a month ago in Sacramento when he hit three triples in the Hornets’ 92-83 win over the Griz, Strings — nor any other player in green and gold — hit a 3-pointer Thursday. Instead he worked from the high post, driving to the rim, or from the block, outmuscling the smaller players Montana was forced to use when its posts, junior Fabijan Krslovic and senior Jack Lopez, were benched with foul trouble.
Despite the career night from Strings, who finished with a game-high 29, Montana had a chance to win it at the buzzer after Marcus Graves missed the back end of a late trip to the line. Freshman Sayeed Pridgett gathered the rebound and raced to half court before calling time out, allowing DeCuire to draw up a final play. It set up senior Brandon Gfeller, who broke out of a month-long slump with three 3s, with an open shot that caromed off the back rim as time expired.
Montana also had an opportunity to take the lead after Rorie, who scored 10 despite a 5-for-14 shooting night, was sent to the line with seven seconds left and Montana trailing 66-65 after Strings’ final basket. Rorie missed both attempts.
“I don’t know, I just wasn’t really focused,” Rorie said. “I didn’t step up there to make up. It won’t happen again. My head was all messed up from previous stuff happening in the game. I didn’t really clear my mind.”
The loss ended a three-game win streak that had Montana poised to make a late run up the conference standings. DeCuire said Wednesday after practice that he felt his team was in the right mindset with the stretch run approaching. He said he got the impression that his team knew what it had to do Thursday and in the remaining weeks before the regular season comes to a close March 4.
But UM labored through a sluggish first half, only breaking away with a late push that turned a three-point deficit with 6:23 to go before the half, into a seven-point advantage. Montana had a stretch where it hit 5 of 6 shots, including a Pridgett layup and then a jumper and three from senior Walter Wright that were set up by the freshman from Oakland.
Montana pushed the lead to nine on Oguine’s breakaway, double-pump slam, but Strings quickly answered with two. Moments later as Graves, who scored 12 second-half points, carried the ball, but play continued. DeCuire objected with a carry motion that was intended for the referee crew, which responded by assessing a technical foul. Graves knocked down both free throws and then drove to the hoop for a layup to pull the Hornets within 41-38 with 14:56 to go.
Sacramento State slowed Montana with a press and then fell into a zone that further slowed the tempo. It stopped Montana from getting into transition, which sapped some of the energy from an offense that resurrected itself during the three-game win streak. Montana finished with just two fast-break points.
Strings buried a couple free throws, hit a jumper from 15, then drove in from the top of the key for two more before taking an entry pass on the block for an easy turnaround hook. At that point he had hit 7 of his 9 shots and had 16 points to stake the Hornets to a 59-55 lead with 4:07 to go.
Rorie responded with consecutive layups to tie the game, but Montana couldn’t hold the small leads it constructed in the waning moments.
“We’ve got senior night Saturday and it’s the last home game and we obviously want to win that,” Rorie said. “Then going onto Montana State we just have to take it one game at a time. That’s the main thing.”
NOTES: Sacramento State outscored Montana 44-34 in the post. … Strings and Graves combined to score 33 of the Hornets’ 40 second-half points. … Rorie scored all 10 of his points in the second half.