Editor’s Note: Skyline senior writer Colter Nuanez contributed to the writing and reporting of this story.
Sayeed Pridgett continued climbing in the Montana record books, passing legendary names like Michael Oguine, Ahmaad Rorie, Kevin Criswell and Kareem Jamar in his last weekend playing in Missoula.
Kendal Manuel shook off his worst outing of the Big Sky Conference season by stepping up to make several big shots in the last college basketball game the Billings native will play in his home state.
And fellow Montanan Jared Samuelson stood on the court before the game holding his daughter while his dad, former Griz Shawn Samuelson, put his arm around his son, three generations of Grizzlies represented in a single embrace.
But a Montana men’s basketball team led by those three seniors who had been basically unbeatable at home throughout their careers fell short on Senior Night Saturday night at Dahlberg Arena in Missoula.
Montana entered the weekend 49-8 at home over the last four years, including winning 39 of its last 42 games at Dahlberg. UM’s lone home loss this season came to Montana Tech during the non-conference. With a chance to stay in the mix for a program-record third straight Big Sky title, Montana stumbled, losing 71-64 to Northern Colorado on Thursday.
Still, Pridgett, Manuel and Samuelson had a chance to enter the Big Sky Tournament with some momentum facing a Southern Utah team that had lost six of its last seven entering Saturday night.
Instead, the Thunderbirds hit big shots down the stretch in regulation and earned the upper hand in overtime against a suddenly disjointed Griz team that enters Boise having lost three of its last four games. Cameron Oluyitan and Harrison Butler each scored 17 points to help Southern Utah prevail with an 85-80 overtime win in front of 5,052 on Saturday night in Missoula.
“It’s a tough way to end the week,” Montana sixth-year head coach Travis DeCuire said. “You feel bad for the seniors, because you want to see them go out with a W. Hats off to Southern Utah; they showed up, they made plays, they were ultra-aggressive at the rim and they shot 43 free throws in an opponent’s gym.”
The Griz finished the regular season 14-6 and lost three of its last four down the stretch. Montana entered the game officially outed from the regular-season championship after Eastern Washington locked up its first outright title since 2004 with a 78-69 win over Weber State.
Montana, the two-time defending regular-season and Big Sky Tournament champions, will not hang a regular-season banner this year. But the Grizzlies are still firmly within the mix to make a run at the 14th NCAA Tournament berth in program history.
“I thought they played with heart,” DeCuire said. “It is emotional to be focused on the task at hand while knowing this is their last time here, they did a phenomenal job.”
Montana’s senior trio combined to score 58 points, including a game-high 27 by Pridgett. Montana’s senior MVP candidate has 1,679 points in his career, passing Jamar for fourth on Montana’s career scoring list. Only Larry Krystkowiak, Michael Ray Richardson and Bob Cope scored more as Grizzlies.
Southern Utah entered the game struggling and fresh off a 73-65 loss at Montana State in which the T-Birds looked listless. On Saturday, one of the league’s most talented teams appears to be peaking at the right time again. SUU takes the No. 7 seed into this week’s tournament after finishing 9-11 in league play. Southern Utah has eliminated the No. 2 seed in consecutive Big Sky Tournaments.
Saturday’s victory also snapped a 15-game losing streak that dates back to 2000 for SUU in games against the Griz.
“The guys are excited,” SUU head coach Todd Simon said in an SUU press release. “They’ve had our number for so long, they’re so tough at their place and it was senior night so we knew we were going to have to play really good, and the guys did that, especially in the second half. And the way we defended was fantastic.”
Montana pushed the pace early in the game, resulting in 3-pointers in transition by Manuel and Samuelson. After five minutes the Griz led 11-2.
Manuel finished with 19 points. In his second year with Montana, the former Oregon State transfer reached 1,000 career points. Next week, Manuel will try to help the Griz to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in Manuel’s UM career and the third straight year overall.
“It was a very emotional night for our seniors, and Griz fans showed up for us tonight,” Manuel said.
Despite UM releasing a pre-game advisory about the coronavirus, a raucous crowd gathered to celebrate three seniors. The document UM released asked people who were not feeling well to avoid the game and noted no individual in Missoula county has the infection.
For the first half, Southern Utah appeared worn down by a virus, while similar lethargy afflicted Montana in the second half. The Thunderbirds fell behind 38-22 late in the first half after shooting just 32 percent. Montana shot 53 percent in the first half but SUU finished the stanza on a 12-2 run.
Pridgett hit a buzzer-beater to close the first half, halting that run and giving him 16 points as UM took a 41-34 lead into the locker room.
Pridgett finished with a game-high 27 points, eight assists, and five rebounds.
“He’s been special,” said Decuire. “Were always gonna miss guys like him.”
The second half fell apart for Montana, who shot for just 27 percent overall while struggling with foul trouble up and down its roster. After making just 1 of its 10 attempts, the Griz watched the Thunderbirds roar back into play and tie it 50-50 with 10 minutes left in regulation.
From there the game became a back and forth, with time dwindling no team had a clear advantage.
Manuel steered the Griz back into the game. He dribbled through traffic with less than two minutes left in the game to deliver a diving layup and brought both teams to 62 apiece.
The game digressed into a battle of free throws. Both teams combined shot 30 free throw attempts in the second half alone.
With less than a minute in regulation, Pridgett tied the game at 71 off a free throw, but couldn’t convert the second. and the possible game-winner. He finished 6-of-10 from the charity stripe.
After a missed Southern Utah newcomer John Knight III missed a game-winning lay-up attempt and SUU missed the put-back, the game went to overtime tied at 71.
In extra time, Pridgett and Derrick Carter-Hollinger fouled out within the first minute. Samuelson, Manuel, and Timmy Falls held out at four fouls.
“At the end of the day it’s not the end of the world,” Manuel said. “We need next week to be the big picture for us.”
Manuel and Montana now look to the Big Sky tournament, which starts for UM in the quarterfinals on Thursday. The Griz will play either No. 6 Northern Arizona, who defeated UM two weeks ago, or Idaho State, the last-place team in the league after losing 80-76 at Idaho on Saturday.