MISSOULA — The second doubleheader clashes both go to teams that won the first time. The Montana State women and the Montana men picked up season sweeps in the annual rivalry on Saturday.
In the men’s basketball game, Montana looked capable of blowing out Montana State in the first half, but the Cats kept crawling back to make it an intense finish in Dahlberg Arena. In the end, the coaches felt the difference was a Grizzly team that has learned how to finish tough Big Sky Conference games and a Cats team still searching for a way to take down the best in the conference.
“I think the biggest thing for us is that we’ve handled those situations very well,” said Griz head coach Travis DeCuire after his team’s 10th straight win. “We haven’t lost confidence. We’ve found ways to go on another run. We’ve responded to runs very well. And a lot of times what most teams do is, guys will start going one-on-one and burping up shots and want to be heroes. And I think this group does a good job of just sticking together, taking the best shot there, and trusting each other.”
“I think it says a lot about our guys that they’re competing and wanting to get there,” said Cats head coach Brian Fish. “We’ve just got to take one more step to be an elite team. We’re a good team, but to be an elite team we’ve got to take one more step. And that’s these little bit of gaps we have against the best teams in our league, we’ve got to close those a little bit.”
The women’s game had perhaps even more drama, with the Lady Griz missing a potential game-tying shot in the final 10 seconds. The two rivals were battling for more than bragging rights. The top five teams receive a bye in the Big Sky Conference tournament, and now the fifth-place Cats strengthened their hold on that position. But the Lady Griz aren’t giving up the chase.
“I’m just trying to keep my kids locked in and getting better every day and just trying to stay in the present,” said Cats head coach Tricia Binford. “But it’s hard not to think about those dynamics, because the bye is really important — even more important this year than in years past with the tournament, not having the day to rest in between.”
“We’re in a good place. We’re going to be in a great place,” said Lady Griz senior forward Jace Henderson. “We’re going to turn a corner here, and we’re excited to continue to get better. Like I said, this game taught us some more strengths about us and some more areas we can work on. Honestly, I’m excited to see this final stretch and see how our athletes compete, because I think we have a lot of great competitors.”
A little more than two weeks remain before the Big Sky Conference tournament tips off. Who knows, maybe we’ll get Round 3 in Boise. The tournament tips off March 11.