Big Sky Conference

Montana smothers UND, wins fourth straight

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In December with his team mired in the struggles stemming from the most challenging non-conference schedule in school history, Travis DeCuire said his team is solely concerned with peaking in March.

“We don’t really talk about how many wins we get in a season,” DeCuire said seven weeks ago. “There are a lot of coaches that schedule wins and are concerned about their records to keep their jobs. We are trying to get better for later on in the year.”

With Big Sky Conference play one-third finished, focusing on the big picture is paying off for Montana in a big way. It took Montana 19 games to push its record above .500. With a 76-70 win over North Dakota on Saturday, the Griz affirmed themselves as one of the best teams in the Big Sky Conference.

UM took its lumps during a 5-8 start that included losses to USC, NC State, Ole Miss, Washington State, Wyoming (twice) and Oregon. Montana has dictated the action for nearly the entire duration of Big Sky play thus far.

Montana guard Ahmaad Rorie /UM Athletics

Montana guard Ahmaad Rorie /UM Athletics

Ahmaad Rorie carried Montana offensively down the stretch, the Griz played their customarily stout defense for the final five minutes and UM emerged with its fifth Big Sky win in six league outings. The victory is Montana’s fourth straight after an 84-81 overtime loss to first-place Weber State on New Year’s Eve. The Wildcats remained a game ahead of UM in the loss column by moving to 4-0 in league with a 70-67 win over Eastern Washington in Ogden on Saturday night.

“We talked about playing together, helping each other out and making each other better,” DeCuire said in a UM press release. “We exposed some things on them, and they exposed some things on us. Down the stretch, though, we got the ball when we needed to get it off the glass.”

Montana pushed its lead to nine points three times in the last eight minutes, but UND cut it to a one-possession game twice thanks to Corey Baldwin’s clutch shooting. Senior Jack Lopez’s free throw with 7:55 left gave UM a 59-50 lead but Baldwin’s corner 3-pointer off a nice dish from fellow senior Quinton Hooker cut the Montana advantage to 59-44 71 seconds later.

Rorie, who scored 14 of his game-high 20 points after halftime, converted an old-fashioned 3-point play to steal the momentum back and push the advantage back to seven.

Baldwin answered back by drilling a 3-pointer through contact and converting the four-point play to cut the Montana lead to 66-63 with four minutes left. The teams traded stops as the game remained scoreless for the next two minutes. UND 7-foot junior Carson Shanks converted a layup with 2:17 left to cut the Griz lead to 66-65.

UND head coach Brian Jones is in his 10th year at North Dakota/by Brooks Nuanez

UND head coach Brian Jones is in his 10th year at North Dakota/by Brooks Nuanez

As has become customary of DeCuire’s Griz teams, Montana smothered the visitors down the stretch and put the game away with a 9-0 run. Shanks’ bunny was UND’s last made field goal. On UM’s next possession, Rorie again converted a 3-point play to extend the advantage to four with 2:02 left. With 41 seconds remaining, Rorie, a smooth Oregon transfer who sat out last season, drilled a 17-footer from the right elbow to essentially ice the game with 41 seconds left. The dagger pushed UM’s lead to 71-65.

“I thought it was a great college basketball game,” UND head coach Brian Jones said. “I think early on we let the turnovers affect our offense too much and we didn’t execute how we have been.

“In the second half, we battled and stayed right there, but give them credit for making some timely shots down the stretch. This is the best we have played in this building and this is a game we can learn from and continue to take positive steps.”

Rorie, a sophomore who is averaging 20 points per game over his last eight, hit two free throws with 21 seconds to complete a stretch in which he scored 10 of UM’s last 15 points during the final five minutes of action.

North Dakota point guard Geno Crandall capped a stellar weekend with a career night. The sophomore scored 22 points and dished out seven assists in UND’s 90-85 victory over Montana State on Thursday to move to 4-1 in conference play and set up Saturday’s showdown. The flashy slasher converted 10-of-13 shots and six of his eight free throws in scoring a game-high 28 points before fouling out with 2:36 remaining.

UND sophomore Geno Crandall

UND sophomore Geno Crandall

Although Crandall got loose, Montana’s defensive effort flustered North Dakota otherwise. Hooker, the preseason Big Sky MVP, finished with eight points on 4-of-11 shooting and seven rebounds.

“The key for us tonight was not to let them both (Hooker and Crandall) go off. If we can slow one of them down, I thought we’d have a pretty good chance,” DeCuire said.

Sophomore Conner Avants scored 20 points in the win over MSU, including 14 in the final seven minutes. Saturday in Missoula, he converted just 1-of-5 from the floor and scored just two points. Baldwin’s 11 points marked the only other Fighting Hawk who scored in double figures as UND shot 42 percent after halftime. The Griz forced 15 UND turnovers.

UM junior Fabijan Krslovic posted his second career double-double by scoring a career-high 16 points and grabbing 10 rebounds despite battling an ailing wrist.

“We’ve been working with Fab on facing up before making his move, and he’s been way more aggressive,” DeCuire said. “When that ball starts going through the hoop for him, he’s going to start getting more touches, and that’s big for us because we need that inside presence to keep the balance.”

UM sophomore Michael Oguine tied a career-high with 11 rebounds. Lopez drilled 4-of-7 from beyond the arc to score 13 points in 36 minutes. Senior Walter Wright came off the bench to score 13 points and dish out four assists for UM as the Griz pulled away late despite making just 1-of-6 from deep after halftime and finishing the game 16-of-25 from the free throw line.

Photos by Brooks Nuanez or attributed. 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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