RENO, Nevada — With Dale Jones shooting the lights out and the defending tournament champions rolling on the momentum spurred on by an underdog mentality, Fabijan Krslovic refused to let his career end.
With the help of Montana dynamic backcourt, UM’s lone senior willed the top-seeded Grizzlies down the stretch to avoid an upset that North Dakota seemed primed for from the outset of Thursday’s first quarterfinal at the Big Sky Tournament in Reno.
Jones drilled seven 3-pointers before halftime, a tournament record for a half, and UND went blow for blow with the outright league champions. The reigning tournament champion Fighting Hawks showed no fear against the tournament’s top seed, taking the lead 12 different times in a rapid, entertaining affair.
But Montana first-team All-Big Sky point guard Ahmaad Rorie scored 22 of his career-high 30 points, explosive All-Big Sky guard Michael Oguine gave the Griz its first two-possession cushion with a thunderous one-handed dunk during his 23-point outing and Krslovic scored Montana’s two most clutch buckets of the afternoon to pace the top seed into the semifinals with an 84-76 win over No. 8 North Dakota.
“A grind and I knew it would be,” Montana fourth-year head coach Travis DeCuire, the recently anointed Big Sky Coach of the Year, said after his teams’ 24th win this season. “Hat’s off to North Dakota. I think Coach (Brian) Jones is a fine coach and he made some adjustments, saw some things he could take advantage in with our ball screen coverage.
“We knew they were going to spread the floor with five shooters and penetrate and get into the paint. We didn’t play our best defense but we did when we needed it, which was the second half.”
Even with receiving the best shot of a team that has had as much success in Reno as anybody — UND won two tournament games two years ago, three in three days last season to advance to the NCAA Tournament and came back from a 19-point second half deficit in its first round win over Montana State earlier this week — the Griz never lost confidence they would find a way to survive and advance.
“I had full confidence we would finish this,” Oguine said. “We have been here before. I told the guys at halftime, let’s not get down on each other. We knew we would be able to make some adjustments and figure it out in the second half. But credit to North Dakota.. They didn’t go away. They fought hard.”
The Griz raced to a 16-2 finish in the Big Sky regular season en rout to UM’s first outright league title since 2013. Montana ran through most of the conference, including beating North Dakota by 30 in Missoula. In the rematch, UND gave the Griz all they could handle in a 72-67 UM win in Grand Forks.
On Thursday, the defending Big Sky tournament champions showed no fear playing against the No. 1 seed. All-Big Sky point guard Geno Crandall has been one of the top performers in Reno since the league moved the neutral site tournament here. The slashing, speedy junior get into the lane at will earn, dishing to a spotted up Jones over and over.
The 6-foot-10 graduate transfer from Iowa drilled his fifth 3-pointer on an assist from Crandall to give UND its largest lead, 31-24, with seven minutes, 20 seconds left in the first half.
“We had nothing to lose, honestly,” said Crandall, who finished with 17 points, seven assists and five steals. “That’s the attitude we came in with. We came into the tournament as the eight seed, they were the one seed to the pressure is on them and we started the game out really loose. The coaches instilled in us the belief we could win. We wanted to go down fighting if this was going to end up being the end of the season.”
As they have all season, Rorie, Oguine and the Griz proved they are impossible to bury. Ougine scored seven points during a 9-2 run to tie the game at 33 and the game went back and forth for the next 10 minutes.
UND junior Cortez Seales scored nine of his 22 points in the first six minutes of the second half as the Fighting Hawks led by as many as six points. But Oguine, Krslovic and Rorie would not quit, helping UM forge a tie with 13:40 left, then watching Rorie hit a jumper in the lane with 12 minutes left to give the Griz the lead for good.
“ I did not want to lose and my team trusts me and Mike to make big plays to we had to be relentless and lead my team to a win,” Rorie said. “We owe it to them because they show up every day and play hard for us.”
Montana’s unflappable point guard has had an unwavering focus for the duration of his junio year, running UM’s offense efficiently, developing into a lockdown defender and showing arguably the best physical endurance in the league. Thursday, he played all but a minute and a half, putting forth a consistent effort that boosted the Griz.
The former Oregon transfer finished with his first 30-point game on 8-of-14 shooting, including hitting all four of his 3-point tries. He also knocked down all but one of his free throws, making him 60-of-64 from the stripe against Big Sky competition.
Rorie’s steadiness combined with Oguine’s peerless motor and breathtaking athleticism gives the Griz one of the most dangerous backcourt combos in the West.
“What makes these two guys special more than their explosiveness and their ability to defend is their trust in their teammates,” DeCuire said. “That allows us to win. There’s a ton of talent in this league. I watch a lot of college basketball and it’s rare you find guys who are 16, 17 points a game that are willing to share the way they do. Each of these guys could’ve easily averaged 20 to 25 points a game or more if they were taking 20 to 25 shots a game. But they are playing to win.’
Montana never led by more than six until the final three minute when the Griz turned to their lone senior. Seales’ layup cut the UM lead to 74-72 before Rorie fed Krslovic on consecutive possessions for jump hooks in the paint. Rorie, who hit 10-of-11 free throws, cashed five straight from the stripe as Montana’s lead swelled to 10 points for the first and only time with one minute to play.
“Fab, his jump hook, nobody can guard it,” Rorie said.
The Griz offset UND’s 11 made 3-point makes by earning a 43-28 advantage on the glass paced by Krslovic’s career-high 13 boards to go with 12 points for his second double-double of the season.
Oguine hit his first three 3-point attempts, then helped Montana ensure it would not give up the lead again with his authoritative dunk with eight minutes to play. The Big Sky’s Defensive Player of the Year proved why, switching on to Jones after halftime and allowing him to make just one shot and score just two points.
“We had to first of all guard Jones,” Rorie said. “Coach Trav made an adjustment to put Mike on him and if he sets a screen, just switch it. We are first in the Big Sky because we play harder than everybody. We just had to get back to doing that.”
The loss means North Dakota’s six-year run in the Big Sky comes to an end. The Fighting Hawks will move into the Summit League after a 12-20 campaign.
“Extremely grateful to the Big Sky for allowing us to be a part of it but I’m hopeful that the Big Sky looks back on our journey with them that we brought a lot of value across the board,” Brian Jones said. “I hope and I feel we made the league better. I feel we brought a quality product. That’s our hope going into the Summit League.”
Montana watched from the crowd for the first half of No. 5 Northern Colorado’s decimation of fourth-seeded Weber State in the second quarterfinal Wednesday before returning to their hotel to rest and prepare. The Griz will take on the Bears in Friday’s 5:05 p.m. PST semifinal two wins away from their ultimate goal of advancing to the NCAA Tournament.
“We just played (Northern Colorado) recently and I keep all of our scouts but we won’t change much,” said DeCuire, who’s team beat UNC 88-79 and 89-80 in their two contests this year. “We do what we do, they will do what they do. We will make adjustments, they will make adjustments and we will go from there.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.