A lingering injury to Montana center Jamar Akoh’s right wrist has caused a chain reaction for the Grizzlies.
UM head coach Travis DeCuire has talked consistently about Akoh’s importance as the anchor of the Griz men’s basketball team’s offense and defense. The 6-foot-8 senior missed six straight games before returning against UC Irvine and North Dakota State. He has not consistently been able to practice since injuring the wrist during Montana’s secret scrimmage before the season began.
Wednesday at one of college basketball’s hallowed venues, Akoh was a last-minute scratch. Arizona, one of America’s premier basketball programs with four Final Four appearances and counting to its credit, exploited the hole in the middle in a variety of fashions, namely going to Chase Jeter early and often.
Montana guarded on the perimeter competitively but without Akoh to throw the ball to on the block on offense and without that anchor defensively, the Griz couldn’t keep up in front of 12,925 at the McKale Center. Jeter scored 21 points, Montana found no flow offensively and the Wildcats cruised to a 61-42 win on Wednesday night.
“We had a family conversation yesterday before about playing hard, playing together and not worrying about who your opponent is but to just bring it,” DeCuire said in his postgame interview with the Voice of the Griz Riley Corcoran on KGVO radio. “I don’t think that lack of effort had anything to do with this game and we competed.”
The loss drops the Grizzlies to 6-4 with a Saturday game at South Dakota State remaining to wrap up UM’s non-conference schedule. UM senior guard Ahmaad Rorie was 7-of-15 from the floor for a game-high 19 points but the rest of the Griz made just seven of their 37 field goal attempts.
“It’s tough because you put so much effort into defending and you are playing against a team that is as good or better defensively so you are grinding on both sides and our lack of size caught up with us,” DeCuire said. “We couldn’t throw the ball in five, six possessions in a row. Typically, you should throw the ball in five or six possessions in a row and you make them defend around the rim or you throw it back out and you shoot with your feet set. All of our jump shots were contested and off the dribble and we have those shooting percentages because we couldn’t throw the ball inside.”
Arizona made just two of its 12 3-point tries but half of its 30 second-half shots after taking a 22-15 lead to the halftime locker room. The Wildcats went on an 11-0 run to push a 27-21 lead to 17 points less than seven minutes into the second half.
The lead swelled to its largest at 21 points with 88 seconds left and the hosts never dipped under 14 points after the early second half run. With Montana struggling to climb back and several questionable foul calls against UM, frustrations mounted. DeCuire earned a technical foul.
Arizona captain Brandon Randolph earned a technical foul of his own just minutes later in a chippy game in which the Wildcats owned a 21-12 advantage in fouls.
“They reach a lot in the pack, they force you to drive into traffic and then they reach in and slap and they claw and we knew it and I thought we did a decent job taking care of the ball (16 turnovers).
“We got a little exhausted not rotating as much as maybe usual. And some came from playing them but a lot of it had to do with their defense. A lot of it had to do with their defense. That’s just what Arizona does: they guard you.”
In his post-game interview, DeCuire said Akoh’s wrist was “tight and sore” after practice yesterday. He received treatment before the game, seemed to be ready to go , went through Montana’s shoot around and pre-game warm up only to be removed from the lineup just minutes before the opening tip.
“So I’m here scrambling in the locker room before the game,” DeCuire said.
DeCuire had to alter his lineup to include 6-foot-11 redshirt freshman Kelby Kramer, who ended up playing a career-high 30 minutes. Montana rotated defensively with great effort all game, resulting in an impressive block of Jeter by senior guard Michael Oguine in what was likely the Grizzlies’ highlight of the evening.
But Arizona scored as many points in the paint as the Grizzlies scored, period. Randolph chipped in 15 points while the Wildcats built a 40-30 advantage on the glass.
“He’s the one guy I knew could handle it,” DeCuire said of Kramer. “There’s a couple of guys if I go to and ask them to start, they might not make it out of the locker room in this environment (laughs).
“If I make a call on offense, a call on defense, drastic changes, he’s good at knowing where to be. He’s the guy who makes the fewest mistakes and can help us the most.”
After a 5-0 start, Montana has lost four of its last five as the Grizzlies head to Brookings, South Dakota. UM will wrap up its non-conference schedule against a South Dakota State team with a 26-game home winning streak, the longest in Division I men’s basketball.
“I thought we played harder and did a better job of sticking to the script,” DeCuire said. “I thought we played like a coached team a lot better than we have in the past. It’s unfortunate the scoreboard doesn’t say that. But like I told them, I’m happy with their effort.”