MISSOULA, Montana — Although Sayeed Pridgett led the Montana Grizzlies in scoring as UM marched to its second consecutive Big Sky Conference title last season, Griz head coach Travis DeCuire has consistently praised Pridgett’s court vision and willingness as a passer first and foremost.
During a brutal non-conference schedule to begin Pridgett’s senior year that included an embarrassing loss to Montana Tech, Pridgett’s willingness to share the ball all of a sudden didn’t seem so apparent.
“Early in the year, we weren’t making shots when he was making good passes to open players so he stopped making those passes,” DeCuire said on the eve of his team playing at Montana State earlier this month. “There was a point in time, we told him to stop passing. You can take 20 shots any time you want and if you can get 20 shots, you can have them.
“But eventually, we got better around him, we got more consistent and the conversation changed.”
The renewed confidence in junior guard Timmy Falls to knock down an open shot is part of the equation. But the continued development and buy in of the three standout freshman in DeCuire’s rotation has proved to be the tipping point in Montana entering the stretch run of the regular season atop the Big Sky standings once again.
Combo guard Josh Vazquez went from the guy who couldn’t buy a bucket on open 3-pointers off of skip passes from Pridgett to the guy who is one of the best knockdown shooters coming off the bench in the Big Sky.
Jumping jack power forward Derrick Carter-Hollinger went from a wide-eyed 17-year-old with boundless energy and little consistency to a starter who became the first Griz freshman to ever win Big Sky Player of the Week honors.
And Kyle Owens went from passive rookie who shied away from the physicality of the Division I game to a reliable rebounder, disruptive denier defensively and a consistent shooter when opportunities arise.
“They came in more prepared than most guys in terms of team concepts, understanding scouts,” DeCuire said. “One guy comes in and he has a coach who makes you play harder than any high school coach in the country (Carter-Hollinger). You have another one now who’s coaching college ball (Owens) so you understand why he understands scouts. And you have another kid who played at such a high level competitively that he’s just not afraid (Vazquez).”
DeCuire knew he would need a group of rookies to make a big impact after graduating five players from last year’s squad, a team that won a school record 52 games over the last two seasons.
DeCuire recruited the 6-foot-2 Vazquez out of Bishop Montgomery High just outside Los Angeles. He earned All-CIF Southern Section, All-CIF Open Division and first-team All-Del Rey league during a career that saw him score 1,000 career points and lead his team to four straight league championships. His team’s never lost a game during league play or a home game during Vazquez’s prep career. Vazquez played on the Open Division – California’s premier classification — state championship team in 2017 under head coach Doug Mitchell.
DeCuire recruited the 6-foot-6 Carter-Hollinger out of Foothills Christian High outside of San Diego, where he played for Brad Leaf and earned East County Player of the Year honors. He averaged a double-double asa junior and a senior, including averaging 17.6 points and 11.5 rebounds per game his final prep season.
And Montana’s sixth-year head coach recruited the 6-foot-8 Owens out of Crespie Carmelite High, where he played for Russell White, who is now the head coach at Cal Lutheran. Owens was a first-team all-area selection after averaging 18.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.1 assists as a senior for a team that won the California Division I state championship his freshman year. Owens’ father, Keith Owens, played for UCLA before playing two seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers.
DeCuire presented all three the opportunity to play early on for a perennial NCAA Tournament contender.
The minutes fluctuated during the non-conference and Montana really struggled to find flow. Pridgett forced the issue more often than not, fellow senior Kendal Manuel struggled to find his shooting stroke and the Griz hit rock bottom in the loss to Montana Tech of the Frontier Conference.
Around Christmas and leading into the opening of Big Sky Conference play, Montana’s trio of freshmen turned the corner defensively, leading to improved trust from their teammates and elevated opportunities on offense. The result has been significant contributions from all three to help Montana sit at 13-3 in league play entering the last road trip of the season beginning Thursday at Northern Arizona.
“The way they defend has helped them grow,” DeCuire said earlier this season. “Our growth defensively for a young group has been huge because typically, it takes a young guy a year or two to figure out how to defend at this level. These guys have picked it up quickly.”
And their ability to make shots, particularly in big games, has proved crucial for Montana. Vazquez started the Big Sky season missing 18 of his first 19 shots from beyond the arc. He broke the streak in resounding fashion, coming off the bench to hit four 3-pointers in four attempts against Weber State, sparking a stretch that saw him hit 11-of-15 triples.
Since the 1-of-19 start, Vazquez has moved from the starting lineup to a reserve role and is 14-of-27 from distance.
“It’s definitely now that I saw one fall, I can make shots,” Vazquez said. “But I definitely got in the gym more. I’ve been working out with the coaches, getting extra shots up and that’s been helping out a lot.
“I don’t really think of it as coming off the bench and starting. I just want to come in and try to produce, do what I can to help my team win. It’s not really any different for me.”
Vazquez had his breakout performance first as he scored 11 points and played 37 minutes in UM’s season-opening 73-62 loss at Stanford. He scored in double figures twice more during the non-conference, notching 10 points in a home win over Texas Southern and a season-high 16 points in an ugly 87-82 loss at Omaha to wrap up the non-conference with a 4-7 mark.
Carter-Hollinger was the first of the freshmen three to really put the Big Sky on notice of his current ability while also foreshadowing the future. Carter-Hollinger bounded and leapt his way to Big Sky Player of the Week honors the third week of conference play, becoming the first Griz rookie to ever earn the honor.
He did it by exploding for 20 points, 14 rebounds and four blocked shots, all career-highs, as Montana destroyed preseason league favorite Eastern Washington in Cheney, 90-63. The following game, he poured in 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting to help Montana to an 85-70 win over Portland State.
“I got super excited when I heard about the award,” Carter-Hollinger said in January. “I was eating breakfast with my fellow freshmen and I was like, ‘Guys, I got player of the week.’ I was like, ‘Whoa, that’s pretty cool.’
“That breakthrough helped me realized I can score at this level and I can play better than I have been. It made me feel a lot more confident I can play at this level.”
It took Carter-Hollinger a few weeks to adjust but he has been productive, particularly since moving into the starting line up the beginning of February. He is averaging 6.2 points and 4.7 rebounds per game overall while shooting 61.6 percent from the floor.
“The Division I game is not what I expected,” Carter-Hollinger said. “The guys are a lot faster and the players are a lot stronger. That’s something I’m trying to adjust to: playing with more pace and being strong with the ball.”
“It was the pace of the game and shooting. In high school, it was pretty easy to get to the rim but as guys get bigger and stronger, it’s harder to get the basket so you have to learn new moves or learn how to shoot better, which is something I’ve been working on.”
Carter-Hollinger has not scored in double figures since the Portland State game. But he has grabbed at least four rebounds and as many as nine in six of the last nine games. His ability to track down loose balls, block shots and provide a spark for the Griz has been important.
“Energy,” DeCuire said. “In that way, he’s a lot like (former Griz guard) Mike (Oguine) when he was a freshman. He’s got a lot of confidence from himself and he seems to find himself in all the right places. When you play basketball the right way, you tend to be in the right places.”
With Falls slowed early in the season while recovering from a broken hand and senior Jared Samuelson hindered by a ligament tear in his knee, Vazquez and Owens were both in the starting lineup from their first games as Grizzlies.
As the veterans returned, the steady, smooth Vazquez and the gregarious Owens assumed roles on the bench.
Owens has seen the least minutes among the rookies. Vazquez is playing 26.6 minutes per game in league play, Carter-Hollinger is playing 23.3 and Owens is playing 13.3 per league contest.
But Owens has made the most of his minutes, particularly in Montana’s first rivalry win over Montana State. In the 78-64 victory in Missoula on February 1, Owens knocked down 4-of-6 shots from the field and scored 14 points in 25 minutes, the most he has played in league.
“This was probably the most fun game I’ve ever played in,” Owens said. “Everyone cheering, going crazy, that’s the place to be in.”
Since then, Owens has 12 points and four rebounds total compared to 13 personal fouls. Yet he’s made an impact despite battling foul trouble for most of February for a team that has consistently given eight players double figures minutes this season.
Following the first of his team’s two Cat-Griz victories this month, DeCuire praised Owens and his classmates.
“Phenomenal – for those freshmen, this was the type of game, I haven’t been involved in too many games that have more energy in it and it helps when you don’t have that whole week of build up, but these freshmen have played in big games,” DeCuire said. “In Southern California, those guys play in high level games. I think there has been a huge benefit for the freshmen.”
In a college basketball landscape where transferring is becoming as common as staying, Montana’s threesome have seemed to collectively bought in and are enjoying growing with one another. After Pridgett, Samuelson and Manuel move on, the Southern California trio will play more prominent roles. For now, they are enjoying going through growing pains together.
“It’s always having someone good to grow up with,” Carter-Hollinger said. “We all go through the same things so it’s easier for us to adjust to the same things. It makes it a lot easier.
“We want to keep practicing hard, keep playing hard, keep bringing energy and keep doing what we can to help this team win.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.