MISSOULA — Keljin Blevins bullied his way into the paint once again, muscling in a bucket to prove once and for all that this Montana State team would not go away easily.
Blevins’ final basket during an outstanding cap to his career playing in the Cat-Griz men’s basketball rivalry cut Montana’s lead to three points with one minute, 49 seconds left to play.
In front of a raucous, rowdy sellout crowd clad in maroon that sat on the border of bedlam all evening, the Griz ripped to a torrid start, executing offensively so crisply that four of their five starters scored points during a 10-2 run to open the game.
Montana mounted a 14-1 run to build a 17-point advantage 13 minutes into the action thanks to lights out shooting that saw the reigning Big Sky Conference champions nail six of their first eight shots from beyond the arc against Montana State’s stagnant zone.
Kendal Manuel, the most prominent in-state product playing in the game, ripped home 3-pointers on consecutive possessions, bringing the 7,315 Zoo Animals to their feet once again, his second triple stretching the Grizzlies’ second half lead to 14 points with eight minutes to play.
But every single time the host Griz tried to slam down the gas pedal or pull away from their pesky rivals, Tyler Hall or Harald Frey would hit a highly contested 3-point shot. Or Blevins would use his bulk to score in the paint.
Montana showed the heart that makes them the defending league champions, the depth that makes them one of the top mid-major teams in Division I basketball and the showmanship of one of UM’s all-time great squads to keep on marching toward an ending that is feeling more and more like Montana’s destiny.
The Griz ripped the nets to the tune of 15 3-pointers, the front-court mismatches provided by playing Sayeed Pridgett and Donaven Dorsey in the front court, the peerless leadership of Rorie, the clutch defense of Bobby Moorehead, the selflessness of senior slasher Michael Oguine and a momentum that is palpable all contributed in Montana posting an 89-83 victory in the 299th rendition of the fiercest rivalry in the Big Sky.
Montana State lost for the second straight game. Before losses in the two toughest venues in the league, MSU held a four-game winning streak highlighted by the best offensive execution under of the Brian Fish era.
A central motivator for MSU’s recent solid play stems from tragedy death of Fish’s 29-year-old daughter, Caryssa. Fish said DeCuire, Montana’s players, and the UM athletic department all reached out to him over the last two weeks, expressing condolences for his tragedy.
“To be a good person, you don’t have to have money, you don’t have to have anything, you just have to be that person,” Fish said. “Trust me, I understand that rivalry. I understand how important this game is to so many people. I get that. But two weeks ago, I lost my daughter.
“Travis called. All the players on Montana reached out. The athletic department from Montana sent flowers. Bobby Hauck wrote me a letter. I understand all this, the ‘I hate the Griz, I hate the Cats, all that,’ I get all that. But the class Montana showed to my wife and I is certainly appreciated and is something I won’t forget.”
DeCuire gave an emotional response.
“That’s what this is about; at the end of the day, we are going to compete and we want to win every game,” DeCuire said. “You hear the crowd screaming all sorts of obscenities. But the reality is we are all people and we are all human and we all have some sort of adversity we are going to go through and we all need to acknowledge that.
“Fish is a phenomenal person and I’ve been competing against him for a long time as an assistant coach and a head coach. Every time I’ve crossed paths with him, he’s been respectful but he competes. I love that. I just feel like when someone goes through things like that, I think it’s important for people who don’t spend every day with them – might not be their best friend – to reach out and let them know they are not by themselves. Five years ago. I had all these people calling me when I lost my mother.
Less than 30 seconds after Blevins’ final layup, Ahmaad Rorie continued adding to his case for Big Sky MVP, although ironically his ability to morph into the league’s best facilitator and on-ball defender has simultaneously made Sayeed Pridgett his biggest contender for the league’s top individual honor
Thanks to crisp ball movement that trademarked Montana’s offensive clinic all night — the Griz hit a season-high 15 3-pointers while dishing out 23 assists on 34 made field goals on a night the hosts shot 55.7 percent from the floor — Michael Oguine’s extra pass to a spotted up Rorie led to the latest in a line of clutch shots during the tireless point guard’s stellar career.
Rorie drilled the triple, giving Montana an 87-81 lead with 1:21 left. On the ensuing play, Rorie drew a charge on MSU big man Devin Kirby. As Rorie rose from the floor, the chiseled senior flexed and gave out an authentic roar, the taste of Montana’s 10th straight victory this season and 17th win over Montana State in the last 18 rivalry showdowns became more real, second by second.
Frey and Manuel, juniors who each scored 19 points Saturday night,each traded free throws in the final minute. But Rorie’s sequence proved to be the deciding blow as Montana moved to 13-2 in Big Sky Conference play, 20-6 overall.
“That’s the rivalry so they are always going to come out here, play a good game, hostile environment because they are good just like we are,” Rorie said. “They are going to make runs. They are the best offensive team in our conference.”
Moorehead was the only Grizzly who didn’t individually shoot over 50 percent on a night when five Griz scored in double figures. He missed all three of his 3-point attempts and went 1-of-4 for two points overall. But that mattered not one bit as he continued making his case for league Defensive Player of the Year.
Hall was his jaw-dropping self, taking an array of what seemed like unwise shots, rainbows that appeared to nearly hit the Dahlberg roof before swishing home. Moorehead was the primary defender on Hall on a night when the Big Sky’s all-time leading scorer drilled five 3-pointers and scored a team-high 23 points.
But Moorehead came up in the clutch down the stretch on a night when he played a game-high 37 minutes. He dished out seven assists and grabbed six rebounds.
His block of Russell Daniels on a fast-break, leading to a tomahawk dunk by Rorie proved to be another turning point in the game.
Hall had just hit his fourth 3-pointer, this one a 27-footer with Moorehead’s closing hand nearly hitting the elite jumper’s face. That shot, one of 11 made 3-pointers Saturday night for the league’s best outside shooting team, cut UM’s lead to 79-73.
Following Rorie’s dunk, a slam that ushered the loudest ovation on a night when there were dozens. Moorehead promptly ripped Hall. Moorehead’s second steal led to an Oguine 3-pointer that gave the Griz their last double-digit lead, 84-73 with 3:46 remaining.
“I know we lost but those were two titans clashing and competing,” Fish said. “I think it was a very good basketball game. I didn’t get our team to the finish line, which is my fault because our guys gave 120 percent.”
With senior center Jamar Akoh on the shelf with an injured right knee, Montana has adjusted its lineup to feature Dorsey, a 6-foot-7 stretch wing who once upon a time was a starter at the University of Washington. Dorsey transferred to Montana and had to sit a year because of an NCAA rule, another year because of a health scare centered upon a tumor in his hip.
Since Akoh went down four games ago, DeCuire has employed the starting front-court of Pridgett and Dorsey. Neither one and both play the four and five spots simultaneously in UM’s suddenly wide-spread offense. Pridgett is the two-time reigning Big Sky Player of the Week. Pridgett hit 10 two-pointers, Dorsey hit four 3-pointers and the front-court combined for 36 points, easing the loss of Akoh’s 16 points per outing.
Dorsey hit four first-half 3-pointers, scoring 16 points overall, his third game in the last five with at least that many points.
“I feel like those are the games we live for, man,” Dorsey said. “Rivalry games, the crowd is insane. There’s just so much hype to the game. We just wanted to come out and ignite the crowd, make the crowd strong. Those are the most fun games to play in.”
Without the anchor on the block combined with Rorie full commitment to facilitating — Montana’s iron man scored 18 points, dished out eight assists, grabbed seven rebounds and committed just one turnover, all the while physically disrupting Frey defensively — Pridgett can get to the rim at will.
The reigning Big Sky Player of the Week converted 10 field goals and scored a team-high 20 points.That’s on the heels of averaging 22 points, 10 rebounds over his last four games. He is shooting over 70 percent since Akoh went down after Saturday’s 10-of-16 finish.
He was the only player in the Grizzlies’ primary seven-man rotation that did not shoot a 3-pointer. He missed both his free throws on a night the Griz only shot eight from the charity stripe.
Frey drilled all 10 of his free throws on a 19-point night. But Rorie’s physicality and UM’s ability to eliminate Frey’s lob passes to Kirby caused Frey into five turnovers. That combined with the fact that he had two assists means the Grizzlies disrupted the point guard ranked eighth in the country in assist-to-turnover ration into his worst rating of league play.
Hall, who moved into the top 100 in scoring in the history of the NCAA (2,390 points), finished with 23 points and four assists. Hall now has 405 3-pointers in his career, the 14th-most in the history of college basketball. His team is now 9-7 in league play, 12-14 overall. MSU and Eastern Washington, who split the season series, are locked in a tie for fourth place a game behind Weber State.
“We always preach it’s a 40-minute game and we never really dropped our heads,” Hall said after finishing his career by averaging 22 points per game against the Griz along with 1-7 mark against the rival. “We knew they were going to go on runs, especially at home. They are a good team. We preached sticking together for 40 minutes.
“The first 15 minutes of the game, they were out-rebounding us and playing harder than us. That’s a good team to play catch up with. We just didn’t have enough in us.”
The Bobcats will have a chance to rebound during the final two-game home stand for Hall, Blevins and Sam Neumann against Southern Utah and Northern Arizona. During MSU’s opening four-game stretch of the conference season, the Bobcats posted a 3-1 record against their upcoming four opponents.
“I think our team has improved drastically from where we were at the start of the season,” Fish said. “We are becoming a good basketball team. We’ve had just a few minutes of lapses against Weber and Montana, both in tough environments on the road.
“I thought we were tested by a swarm. They came out and came at us, got us down by 17. We got back into it. Offensive rebounds, defensive stops got us back into it. Those are things you’ve got to do. I think that says a lot about our guys that we want to get there. We just have to take one more step to be an elite team. We are a good team but to be an elite team, we have to take a few more steps….that is a good basketball team, fellas. Travis has done a helluva job coaching him. We gave them everything we had but that’s a good basketball team.”
As for the Griz, the Big Sky’s marked team is closing in on hanging a second straight banner despite being projected as this season’s champion seemingly immediately after losing to eventual national runner-up Michigan in the first round of last season’s NCAA Tournament.
UM has dealt with injuries — Akoh tore a ligament in his wrist before he tore a ligament in his knee — and the relatively surprising eligibility waiver provided Manuel, who played at Oregon State just last year. From the pressure stemming from Rorie declaring for the NBA Draft last off-season to the pressure that comes with being the anointed favorite, Montana has not wavered.
The Griz have a full two-game lead with five games left to play. Monday, Montana hosts second-place Northern Colorado (11-4 in league). The Bears last played in an 88-78 overtime loss at EWU.
Montana bounced back from a 78-71 loss at Eastern, UM’s second straight loss and most recent loss, by destroying UNC in Greeley. UM snapped UNC’s four-game Big Sky winning streak by shooting 56.5 percent in an 88-64 win.
If Montana wins Monday, the Griz will have a three-game lead with four games to play, including the final two home games for UM’s quartet of memorable seniors
“Our conference loves us,” DeCuire said. “They are really, really big fans of the Griz. It’s funny how so many people talk about the favoritism the Griz get when decisions are made about the conference.
“Man, I think it’s a huge advantage for us to play the team that is behind us right now in the standings twice when they have had 10 days rest and we’ve had one.
“We are looking forward to that big advantage we have going into this game on Monday because we are going to be so much fresher and so much more prepared for them. I’m excited, I can’t wait.”
Photos by Jason Bacaj. All Rights Reserved.