RENO, Nev. – Montana rose to the top of the Big Sky thanks to their suffocating man-to-man defense. So it’s only fitting an outstanding performance on D gave the Griz a championship.
Montana shut-down Eastern Washington in the second half, and finished a comeback for the third straight day to win the title, 82-65.
The Grizzlies trailed 40-29 at halftime. The Eagles came out on fire, shooting over 50 percent, and over 60 percent from behind the three-point live.
But Montana immediately started the comeback with three straight three-pointers to begin the second half. Then the UM defense started making everything difficult for the three-seed, while the top-seed kept scoring and putting on more pressure. At one point, Montana stopped Eastern from scoring on 18 of 19 possessions. And they held the Big Sky MVP, and all-time leading scorer in the conference Bogdan Bliznyuk, to only 15 points.
“Defense is what we hang our hat on,” said Griz junior guard, and Big Sky defensive player of the year Michael Oguine. “And I feel we did a great job of that. First half they were making a lot of shots. We had to make adjustments. Defense is contagious. They started to get stops and I started getting back in my rhythm. And we were able to get those 18 stops together. So that was big time of us.”
“You saw a group slow down a very explosive offensive team that at one point in time last night was shooting 75 percent from the floor,” said head coach Travis DeCuire referencing Eastern Washington’s impressive semifinal performance versus Southern Utah. “So for us to hold them to 36 percent in the second half, and out-score them by 28 points (in the second half), that’s defense.”
Freshman guard Timmy Falls turned a steal into a layup at the 10:59 mark that capped off a 9-0 Griz run, and gave Montana a 54-50 lead.
Oguine turned a steal into a thunderous two-handed dunk on the other end, capping another 10-0 run with 3:33 left. Oguine’s slam put the final punctuation on the evening, giving the Griz a 71-54 lead.
The final minutes allowed the Griz to soak in a great season, and a championship run in Reno.
“That’s the reason that I came to this program. I came here to go to (NCAA) tournaments,” said forward Fabijan Krslovic, the team’s only senior who will make his first trip to the big dance. “It’s real special. We’ve put in so much work this year. Everyone has bought in from top to bottom. It’s a great thing to be part of this group.”
Oguine led the way with 21 points, and was named tournament MVP. But once again, every Grizzly found a way to contribute. Ahmaad Rorie scored 15 and dished out five assists. But even more importantly he took the task of guarding his old AAU teammate Bliznyuk in the second half. Rorie gave up four inches and plenty of size, but stayed within millimeters of the Eastern star .
Bobby Moorehead added 12 points for Montana, including three three-pointers. Krslovic chipped in 11 points and 10 rebounds.
The Grizzlies trailed in the quarterfinals versus North Dakota, but came back. They trailed by six in the final minute versus Northern Colorado in the semifinals, but somehow came back. And they trailed Eastern Washington by 11 points in the second half, and came back for a championship.
Montana makes their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2013. They’ll find out their seed, their opponent, and the location of their next game on the selection show at 4:00 Mountain Time Sunday afternoon.