RENO, Nev. – One team played with nothing to lose, and almost pulled off a huge upset. But the team that has rarely lost this year showed they knew how to win down the stretch.
Top-seed Montana finished strong to hold of eight-seed North Dakota 84-76 in the Big Sky Conference tournament quarterfinals.
The Grizzlies finally built separation during the final three minutes, in a game that had remained close throughout. After a UND basket cut the Griz advantage to 74-72, Montana’s lone senior Fabijan Krslovic scored back-to-back baskets in the post to start an 8-0 run. Ahmaad Rorie added five free throws down the stretch. And UM supporters breathed a sigh of relief.
North Dakota came out unafraid to launch against Montana’s usually stingy defense. UND made eight three-pointers in the first half, including six from forward Dale Jones. The Grizzlies had to answer with equally good offense to keep the game close, and went into halftime tied 42-42.
The Fighting Hawks started the second half on fire, as well. UND built a six-point lead in the opening five minutes of the half. But Montana quickly came back. And after tying the game with 13:40 left, the Griz never trailed again. Although they didn’t pull away until the very end.
Montana’s outstanding pair of junior all-conference guards proved to be the biggest difference in the game. Rorie finished with 30 points on 8/14 shooting, six rebounds, and five assists. Michael Oguine added 23 points on 9/14 shooting, and one incredibly powerful dunk on a baseline drive that brought Griz fans to their feet. And the two came up with an answer each time the Fighting Hawks made a play in the second half.
“I had full confidence,” said Oguine when asked if the close game had him worried at all. “We’ve been here before. I told the guys at halftime, let’s not get down on each other. We’re going to make some adjustments, and we’ll figure it out second half. And I think we did a good job of that.”
“My team fought too hard, and they trust me and Mike to make big plays,” added Rorie. “So I think just trying to be relentless, and trying to just lead my team to a win. So me and Mike just helped do that.”
“What makes these two special is not just their ability to score, their explosiveness, and their ability to defend. But I think their trust in their teammates is what allows us to win,” said head coach Travis DeCuire about his starting backcourt. “That’s why I have a ton of confidence. Not just in their ability to score. But their ability to play the game, and their willingness to play to win.”
Krslovic added 12 points and 13 rebounds for UM. Sayeed Pridgett pitched in 14 points and 11 rebounds off the bench. Montana won the rebounding battle 43-28 against the much smaller Fighting Hawks, who were playing with starter Conner Avants. The forward and best UND post defender and rebounder suffered an injury in North Dakota’s first round win over Montana State.
Montana’s size advantage didn’t translate to domination in the post on offense. UM’s third leading scorer, Jamar Akoh, only scored two points and was never able to establish rhythm inside. DeCuire admitted he likes to go with the hot-hand. So Montana turned more to Rorie and Oguine than to their forwards for scoring.
Jones scored 22 points for UND with his hot-shooting first half. But he only scored two points in the second half to finish with 24. Cortez Seales gave the Grizzlies trouble on tough drives inside. The wing who did not score against the Bobcats two days prior while dealing with a lingering injury, scored 22 against the Griz. Star UND point guard Geno Crandall scored 17 points and dished out seven assists.
Montana advances to the Big Sky semifinals, and will meet five-seed Northern Colorado on Friday night at 6:30 mountain time. The Bears dominated four-seed Weber State in the second quarterfinal of the day in Reno.
North Dakota’s season ends with a 12-20 record. And the Fighting Hawks time in the Big Sky has now also come to an end. UND moves to the Summitt League next season.