WICHITA, KS – Montana did so many things well in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Thursday night, but the one thing they didn’t do was too much to overcome.
The 14-seed Grizzlies had two long scoring droughts and shot only 32 percent from the field in a 61-47 loss to 3-seed Michigan.
Montana only trailed 31-28 at halftime, but saw Michigan extend the lead slowly in the second half. Jamar Akoh scored a bucket early in the half but the Griz didn’t get another basket until Ahmaad Rorie hit a three-pointer with 9:30 left, a span of nine minutes and 56 seconds. The Wolverines lead hit its highest point at 14 during that stretch.
Immediately after Rorie’s three, Michael Oguine threw down a highlight-worthy one-handed dunk. A bucket by Fabijan Krslovic with 5:41 left cut the lead to nine. However, Montana’s offense could never make a run, and they never climbed any closer.
“It’s Michael and my job to put the ball in the basket when we need some buckets, but the lid wasn’t coming off,” said Rorie, who tied for the team high with 15 points. “It’s tough when that doesn’t happen. And Michigan does pack the lane in so it makes it hard for you to get in there.”
“At the end of the day it’s tough to win a game against a team like Michigan if you shoot 32 percent from the field,” added Oguine, who also scored 15 points. “So, we still have to be better. But at the end of the day, I’m still proud of the way we fought regardless of the outcome.”
Montana had plenty of reasons to hold their heads high despite the off shooting night. The Griz played their usual in-your-face man-to-man defense and had the usually efficient Wolverines rattled. Michigan committed 14 turnovers and only dished out 11 assists, uncharacteristic numbers for a team that ranks second in the country in turnovers per game. Montana also only lost the rebounding battle 36-33 against the much bigger Wolverines. Points in the paint were tied 26-26.
Montana got off to a fantastic start, unlike their three Big Sky tournament wins where the Griz fell behind early. Oguine scored the first five points of the game, and the Griz took a 10-0 lead at the first timeout after four minutes. Montana’s offense slowed down after that point, but their defense never did.
“It was a defensive struggle, and their defense was a little better than ours tonight,” said Griz head coach Travis DeCuire. “But all respect to that team. It’s a very well-coached team, and like I said yesterday, probably one of the better coached teams in the country. They don’t beat themselves. They defend and they don’t take bad shots. So that’s going to be a very difficult team to beat.”
Montana’s first scoring drought lasted over four and a half minutes in the middle stages of the first half. A couple minutes later, Michigan took their first lead with 3:59 left in the half. The Big Ten tournament champs would lead for the rest of the game.
Charles Matthews provided a much needed huge boost for the Wolverines. The team’s second-leading scorer totaled 20 points, many on open cuts to the basket while Montana’s defense was rotating. = He also grabbed 11 rebounds. DeCuire called Matthews performance, “the difference in the ball-game.”
Muhammed-Ali Abdur-Rahkman added 11 points for the Wolverines, but leading scorer Moritz Wagner only totaled five point and six rebounds. The 6’11 star from Germany was frustrated all night by aggressive Griz defense, led mostly by Krslovic.
Krslovic totaled only five points and three rebounds in his final game in a Montana uniform, but the senior finished with a familiar smile on his face, and with his usual outstanding defensive performance.
The 6’8 Australian is the only senior on the Montana roster, and while his unsung contributions will be hard to replace, the Griz set the foundations for the future with a 26-8 record, Big Sky regular season and tournament championships, and a defensive, tough-minded identity that drew praise from many of the observers in Wichita, including Michigan head coach John Beilein.
“I feel like we did a good job of representing Montana basketball,” said Oguine. “Not too many teams knew much about us going in. But I feel like after watching this game they know we’re a team that plays hard and competes no matter who we play against.”
“I think I have a group of young men that gave me everything they had,” added DeCuire. “And you can’t say that for every team every year. And these guys were all in. They showed up. They performed. They gave us everything they had. I’ll be talking about this team for a long time.”