BOISE — Travis DeCuire has been disappointed in the Montana Grizzlies’ starts to games.
It’s not that the coach demands fast starts; he simply wants aggression.
He got both on Thursday, as the top-seeded Grizzlies jumped out to a quick double-digit lead on No. 9-seed Sacramento State in the quarterfinal round of the Big Sky Conference men’s basketball tournament. UM needed every ounce of that start to hold off the Hornets for a 79-73 win at Century Link Arena.
“We had a heart-to-heart — we’ve had a lot of these this year — as a group. I mentioned wanting to be more aggressive. I didn’t feel like we were starting games very aggressively, so one of the best ways to do that is put speed on the floor,” said DeCuire, who inserted Timmy Falls into the starting lineup prior to the Grizzlies’ final regular-season game against Sac State.
Falls started again on Thursday, helping spark UM to a dominant start. The Griz harassed Sac State’s offense and pushed the tempo, getting easy buckets in transition before heating up from behind the arc.
Montana forced Sac State into seven first-half turnovers, which the Griz turned into 10 points. They shot better than 51 percent in the first half and made five 3s, including one from Donaven Dorsey to put UM up 21 points.
“I think the adjustment we made with Timmy Falls in the lineup allowed us to create more early off our defense,” DeCuire said. “We do want to get out to good starts as much as possible, but I haven’t made a big deal out of it.”
As quickly as Montana built its lead, Sac State closed the gap. The Hornets went on an 8-0 spurt to close the first half and get within 13 at the break. The run ultimately reached 16-2 in the opening minutes of the second half, as the Hornets trimmed the deficit to just seven.
From there, it was a game of cat and mouse. The Griz went on a 10-0 run over the next three minutes. The Hornets answered with an 11-0 surge. The Griz pushed the lead back to double digits with a 9-3 run, and the lead hovered between six and 12 points until the final minute.
But Sac State’s duo of Marcus Graves and Bryce Fowler wouldn’t go away quietly. They combined for 49 points, making 9 of 13 3-point attempts between them. Graves finished with 30 points, his last eight coming in the final minute on a driving layup, a deep wing 3 and an acrobatic three-point play that got the Hornets within four with 13 seconds left.
“(Graves and Fowler) are very capable shooters,” DeCuire said. “I think the reality is that they settled down and made sure the right guys got shots. The other thing is, they pound the paint and they throw the ball inside, so when you do that it opens up 3s.”
After Kendal Manuel missed the front end of a one-and-one with 12 seconds to go, Graves again drove into the heart of Montana’s defense. This time, he kicked to Chibueze Jacobs, who missed an open 3 at the top of the key, allowing the Griz to escape with the 79-73 win after two free throws from Bobby Moorehead.
The Griz showcased their depth and balance on Thursday with four players, led by Michael Oguine and Ahmaad Rorie, reaching double figures. Oguine did most of his damage in an electric first half, scoring at the rim with acrobatic finishes for 15 first-half points. He had a team-high 19 points in the game to go along with four steals.
Rorie had only three points at halftime, but had 14 huge points in the second half as the Grizzlies’ stabilizing influence. Sayeed Pridgett added 16 points on 8-of-9 shooting, and Kendal Manuel chipped in 11 points and seven assists.
“This is what our season really comes down to, these three games at the conference tournament,” Oguine said. “Being my last one, it’s just about leaving everything out there on the floor, go out there and don’t have any regrets when it’s all over. Just getting into a good start is a key for me — playing with passion, energy. When you do that, you usually like the results.”
Montana (24-8) will meet Weber State in Friday’s semifinal round. Tipoff is scheduled for 5:30 p.m.