Game Recap

Stingy defense boosts Montana past Weber State for crucial Big Sky win

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By COLTER NUANEZ

MISSOULA, Montana — The Griz finally earned the breakthrough they so desperately coveted, smothering Weber State with the best performance of the season on the way to an 80-67 win here on Thursday night. 

And following his team’s most impressive Big Sky Conference victory so far this season, Montana seventh-year head coach Travis DeCuire did not mince words in summing up his team’s fifth league victory. 

“Defense wins games,” DeCuire said. “I don’t know if I can put it any better than that. Our guys were tuned into the scout, made a few adjustments to some of the things we’d been struggling with in the past but we really put pressure on the defensive end and that’s what led to victory.”

The Grizzlies have struggled more often than not offensively in Big Sky play during an uncharacteristic season in DeCuire’s otherwise sterling tenure. The Griz have had long scoring droughts and blown second-half leads consistently. 

Thursday night, UM did none of those things. Instead, the Grizzlies looked loose, confident and focused in dispatching their old rival, a Weber State team that came into the contest as one of the league’s hottest squads. 

The Wildcats had averaged 86 points per game, ranked seventh in all of Division I men’s hoops. A week ago, Weber hung 96 on a Montana State team that entered the two-game series in Ogden allowing 62 points per contest on the way to a 6-0 lead start. 

But the Griz got up in the faces of Weber State’s talented, balanced offensive attack, never allowing any of the five Wildcats who entered the game averaging double figure in scoring to find any rhythm.

“Pressure,” DeCuire said. “We got it out of rhythm, we took away their flow and the shots that they typically get weren’t there. We had to create something else and sometimes, that’s hard to do when you didn’t necessarily prepare for that. We guarded better than we have all year and we caught them off guard a little bit. 

“They’ll make adjustments. We have to be better Saturday that we were today.” 

Montana head coach Travis DeCuire coaching freshman forward Josh Bannan (13) vs. Weber State Thursday/by Griz Communication

“Part of it was how intense practice was for three days,” DeCuire said. “Usually, we have one hard practice, scout on Tuesday and then Wednesday, you review some things and try to be fresh coming into the game. But we were in grind mode for three consecutive days, a lot of things, drills you don’t typically do two days before a game, we did. And I thought it had carry over.”

DeCuire, who won 75.4 percent of his Big Sky games during his first six seasons leading his alma mater, has preached a defense first mindset for the duration of his tenure at Montana. He constantly demands his team believe the notion that pressure defense leads to efficient offense. 

That premise translated perfectly on Thursday. Montana held a Weber team that shot the lights out last weekend to their second-lowest point total this season. And Montana scored more points against a Division I opponent than it has all winter. 

“That’s part of your maturity,” DeCuire said. “If you haven’t experienced playing defensive minded style of basketball and having that carry over to the offensive end, you really don’t believe that’s how it works. You see it at the highest level, right? There are a bunch of guys out there scoring a ton of points but they are not producing wins. We just have to continue to focus on all the things that matter and I think our guys did that tonight.”

Montana sophomore Kyle Owens, who was the catalyst in UM’s 78-63 win at Sac State last month thanks to a career-high 22 points, scored a total of 14 points last weekend in a lackluster UM effort in splitting with 10th-place Portland State. 

Thursday, the 6-foot-8 sophomore found the finest offensive form of his career. The southpaw operated with a smooth confidence on the way to a career evening. He hit 11 of his 16 shots from the floor, including drilling four of his five tries from beyond the arc on a night the Griz hit 9-of-18 from deep. Owens finished with 27 points, surpassing his career high and helping Montana earn a breakthrough win a team with nine new faces entering the season has so desperately coveted. 

Montana forward Kyle Owens (0) defends Weber State guard Isiah Brown (12) Thursday/by Griz Communications

“That’s a great win and we have just been focused on getting a streak going,” Owens said. “Good win, but now we are moving on and focusing on Saturday.

“The ball was just moving. We were moving until we got an open shot. And that comes with my teammates trusting me to hit shots when I get it in my spots and we just go from there.”

Montana earned a 34-29 lead at halftime, then opened he second half on a 10-2 run to pus the lead to double digits for the first time. Reigning Big Sky Player of the Week Seikou Sisoho Jawara, one of five transfers in WSU’s starting lineup, drilled his second 3-pointer to cut the UM lead to 47-42 with 12:31 left. 

Jawara, a transfer from Loyola Marymount who made 11 3-pointers in 15 attempts over the last two weekends, did not score again. The defensive catalyst was UM freshman Josh Bannan, a long and lanky 6-foot-8 rookie who helped Montana keep the sharpshooter in check. 

“We just spent a lot of work this last week on some conceptual stuff that we practiced,” Bannan said. “We just did a much better job, played a lot harder, our intensity lifted to a new level and we executed a lot of stuff. We were able to reap the benefits of that.”

Jawara led the Wildcats with 19 points. Florida transfer Dontay Bassett added 13 points, Northwestern transfer Isiah Brown had 12 points, freshman Dillon Jones scored 11 points and New York Tech transfer Zahir Porter added 10 points for the visitors. 

But the balance didn’t matter as longtime Weber State head coach Randy Rahe continued to be haunted by Dahlberg Arena.  The Wildcats are 3-15 all-time in Missoula under Rahe, who is the all-time leader in the history in the conference in overall and league wins during his 15 seasons leading WSU. Some of Rahe’s best teams lost to the Griz in Dahlberg in the Big Sky Tournament championship game and Weber State lost three league title contests in Missoula in Rahe’s tenure. 

Montana freshman guard Brandon Whitney (12) takes a shot vs. Weber State Thursday/by Griz Communications

Leading up to the game, the Griz players expressed their awareness of the age-old rivalry Montana has always had with the Wildcats, one spurred on by the two programs representing the two most storied teams in the league’s 58-year history. 

The Grizzlies played with a different level of confidence and swagger, harkening back to memories of some of DeCuire’s best and most electrifying teams. UM shot 53 percent from the field and dished out 19 assists on 20 made baskets, led by six times each from primary ball handlers junior Cam Parker and freshman Brandon Whitney. 

Parker and Bannan also got in on the scoring assault, finishing with 15 and 13 points respectively. Parker knocked down six of his seven field goal attempts and both of his 3-pointers while Bannan hit all six of his shots, including his only 3-pointer. 

“With me, it’s a little different because when I drive, people just automatically assume I’m going to pass so when Kyle has 27 and Whitney has 10 and guys are scoring, Bannan is scoring, it’s hard to contain me going to the paint and contain them,” said Parker, a transfer from Sacred Heart who doled out an NCAA Division I record 24 assists in a game last season. “If (Owens) is hitting 3s, what else is there to do? Whenever they go crazy, it’s just easier for me to get to the paint to be honestly.”

This season, Montana is 5-1 on Thursdays in Big Sky Conference play. The Grizzlies are 0-5 on Saturdays. Weber State entered the game on a five-game winning streak and with a 6-2 league mark, helping them sit in a four-way tie with Montana State, Eastern Washington and Southern Utah before the weekend’s action commenced. 

Now Montana is only one game back of the Wildcats in the win column and will look for its first conference sweep of the season on Saturday at noon against the suddenly searching visitors. 

“We just have to keep listening to the coaches, what they are telling us to do and we just have to keep trusting each other as well,” Owens said. 

Photos attribution noted. All Rights Reserved.

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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