Ahmaad Rorie leads the Montana Grizzlies in scoring with 17.8 points per game - MTN Sports photo


MISSOULA – Coming off of its most-complete performance of the season – and perhaps in the entire four-year tenure of Travis DeCuire’s career – Montana is playing with continuity and confidence entering its non-conference finale, Friday at Washington.

“I think that’s as well as we’ve played in a long time,” DeCuire said following Tuesday’s win over UC Irvine. “For us to go out and be that explosive offensively and to execute on defense like we did . . . It was the longest stretch I’ve seen this team execute with five bodies in the right places and playing hard at the same time.”

In a matter of 54 hours, the Grizzlies recorded victories over UC Riverside and UC Irvine – and both were impressive. Against the Highlanders, Montana scored 86 points on 50-percent shooting while limiting the visitors to a 38.5-percent clip – a season low for a UM opponent. Two days later, against the Big West favorites, Montana was dominant against UC Irvine, not only scoring 86 points on 52.5-percent shooting, but also playing top-notch defense that included three shot-clock violations and two 10-second whistles.

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Montana is beginning to find its rhythm, and being at home for a full week for the first time all season played a role, DeCuire said. The next step is taking this growth and turning it into a consistent product.

“I think it was a sign of growth. The biggest thing for us was how we defended and how we were able to execute on the defensive side of the ball, because if you can do that every night you can give yourself a chance to win no matter who you play.”

Already guaranteed of its first winning non-conference mark in six seasons, Montana will now look to knock off a hot Washington Huskies squad. The Huskies are off to a 9-3 start and have already matched last year’s entire season win total.

“This is a tough game to prepare for,” DeCuire said. “We’ve been playing against a lot of zones, but not a zone like theirs. It’s almost like smoke and mirrors. Are they guarding me or not? Are they in the passing lanes? Can I drive? You don’t know what’s there, so we have to be able to move them around before we attack the paint or shoot too quickly. Our offense needs to be on point.”

The game will be special for several Grizzlies, not just because it’s another game, or a game against a Pac-12 opponent on national TV.

“For me personally, I grew up in Seattle,” DeCuire said. “It’s where I started my coaching career, it’s where I have family. A lot of our guys are that way.”

Four players are from the state of Washington, including Tacoma natives Bobby Moorehead and Ahmaad Rorie. In Montana’s meeting at Washington two years ago, Moorehead had a then-career-high 10 points vs. the Huskies. Rorie has played the Huskies twice, while a freshman at Oregon in 2014-15, scoring six points on 3-of-5 shooting and adding three assists in a contest at Alaska Airlines Arena.

Current Griz Donaven Dorsey, a native of Lacey, Wash., who played two seasons at the University of Washington, played against Rorie in those meetings with Oregon. Dorsey will miss Friday’s game as he recovers from season-ending hip injuries. Also redshirting is walk-on Peter Jones, a forward from O’Dea High School in Seattle.

The connection isn’t just with the players, however. Assistant coach Rachi Wortham is also from Tacoma and played a season at Tacoma Community College before transferring to, and later coaching at, Eastern Washington. DeCuire is from Seattle and has spent more than half of his life in that area, either as a prep player, high school coach or educator. The non-profit that he founded, Fastbreak Basketball Association, is also based in Seattle, transforming from a 13-player AAU team from Tacoma into an entire non-profit.

Aside from Gonzaga and Washington State, Montana has played the Huskies more than any other non-conference Division-I opponent, meeting for 54th time on Friday. The Huskies lead the all-time series, 44-9, but Montana has had some bright spots.

The Grizzlies won five of six meetings between 1982-83 and 1994-95, including three in a row during Travis DeCuire’s playing career.

“Those games were always emotional, because I wasn’t recruited by them,” said DeCuire, a Seattle native. “It’s kind of like how I coach, with a chip on my shoulder. Our team was like that. I had every reason to be revved up for those games.”

The three-game win streak featured two home wins, sandwiched between an overtime win in Seattle that DeCuire still relishes. As he recalls, the Grizzlies trailed by 11 with a minute to play. It was the first year that the clock stopped after a made basket, so Montana went into foul mode.

“It was the longest minute I’ve ever been a part of,” DeCuire said. “They missed some foul shots and we’d come down and scored, quickly in transition, off of ever missed free throw. I think it was Gary Kane who might have hit the shot to send it into overtime, and then we won it overtime.”

The series between Montana and Washington dates back to 1923-24, and the two teams played two times most seasons through 1940-41, including as Pacific Coast Conference mates for a short stretch. The series picked back up in 1961-62 and continued semi-regularly through the end of DeCuire’s playing career (20 meetings in 34 seasons).

The two teams have played five times since then, including in the 2005 NCAA tournament in Boise, Idaho. The Huskies won that meeting by 11 to snap Montana’s three-game winning streak in the series and have won the last five in the series overall. The Grizzlies gave the Huskies a run for their money in 2013-14, falling by four on the road in a game in which Montana missed a free throw with 12 seconds remaining that would have tied the game. The two teams also met in 2015-16 with DeCuire at the helm. In the loss, Michael Oguine had 22 points and nine rebounds, also adding five assists. Bobby Moorehead had 10 points while Fabijan Krslovic added nine points and two steals.

• Washington is off to a 9-3 start to the season, winning seven of its last eight games, including vs. No. 2 Kansas on Dec. 6 in Kansas City.
• The Huskies are led by freshman Jaylen Nowell, the cousin of Montana head coach Travis DeCuire. Nowell is averaging 17.3 points on .510 shooting.
• Junior Noah Dickerson is nearly averaging a double-double with 16.0 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. He has made 63 percent of his shots (27th in Division I).
• David Crisp is the team’s top deep threat, connecting on 26 three-pointers (35.1 percent). The junior is averaging 13.0 points per game and has a team-most 43 assists and 33.3 minutes-played-per-game average.
• Junior Matisse Thybulle is also in double figures for scoring (11.2), but his defense is most impressive. Thybulle is the nation’s leader with 42 steals. He also has 21 blocked shots.
• As a team, UW ranks 19th in Division I for steals (9.1 per game) and 28th for blocked shots (5.6).
• The Huskies get to the line frequently, attempting the eighth-most free throws in Division I (317). They are shooting 68.1 percent and rank 16th for total free throws made.
• Washington averages 81.8 points per game, 58th in Division I.
• After winning nine games all of last season, the Huskies have already matched that win total.
• Six of UW’s nine wins have come by 10 points or fewer.
• The Huskies are under the direction of first-year head coach Mike Hopkins, formerly the top assistant under Jim Boeheim at Syracuse. In 22 seasons with the Orange, Syracuse advanced to postseason play all but one season, including four Final Four appearances.

Back-to-back home victories this week improved Montana’s overall record to 7-4, marking the team’s best 11-game start to a season since the 2010-11 squad began the year with a 10-4 mark en route to a 21-win season.

The victory over UC Irvine also guaranteed a winning non-conference record for the first time in six seasons, dating back to 2011-12. In fact, despite a storied history that is littered with conference championships and postseason berths, this season marks just the fifth time since the turn of the century that the Grizzlies have posted a winning non-conference mark. The other times were in 2005-06, 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2011-12 – with Montana advancing to the NCAA tournament three of those seasons and the CBI in 2011.

The feat is even more impressive considering the level of competition Montana has faced thus far. The Grizzlies have played three Power-5 opponents (Pitt, Penn State and Stanford, all on the road), and will face a fourth this week at Washington. The Grizzlies also played six of their first nine games away from home, with an additional road game at No. 23 UCLA being canceled once the team was already on site. In addition to the Power-5 opponents, UC Santa Barbara is off to a 9-3 start while UC Irvine was predicted to win the Big West and Georgia State was selected to finish second in the Sun Belt.