BUTTE — Bridger Deden and Sam Gray were redshirts on Montana Tech's 2019-20 men's basketball roster and on the bench in Dahlberg Arena four years ago when the Orediggers did the unthinkable — topple the Montana Grizzlies 74-72 to give the NAIA team one of its most memorable victories in program history.
"It was an unreal experience coming away with the (win) that night," recalled Deden, a Missoula Hellgate grad who grew up rooting for the Griz. "That night, came home and celebrated. The rest of my life I won't ever forget beating the Griz."
"That win really turned the corner for this program," said Gray, a Billings Central product. "Just in terms of building year after year."
In hindsight, that signature victory seemed to serve as a launch pad for the Orediggers, who went on to post a winning Frontier Conference record that season (10-8) for the first time under head coach Adam Hiatt. Flash forward to today, and Tech is a month away from opening conference play as the back-to-back league champion and a top-10 team.
And on Saturday, No. 8 Tech (7-1) will get a shot at the NCAA Division I Grizzlies for the first time since that mammoth upset on Nov. 18, 2019.
🚨 Schedule Update 🚨 https://t.co/BFDxhAsx2C— Montana Tech Basketball ⚒️ (@MTechHoops) December 3, 2023
The Orediggers announced on Sept. 28 that Montana had agreed to play Tech, with the original date and time set for 7 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 8. That tipoff was pushed back this week to Saturday at 1 p.m. to accommodate Montana football's nationally televised FCS quarterfinal matchup against Furman on Friday night.
"It's going to be a great opportunity for our players to be able to play against one of the best teams in the Big Sky Conference," said Hiatt. "We're just looking forward to the challenge.
"I can't tell you how much respect I have for (Montana head men's basketball coach Travis) DeCuire and his staff. The fact that they wanted to play us this year just means the world to us."
The Orediggers' roster got a big boost last week with the return of All-American senior Caleb Bellach, who poured in 17 points against Concordia University of Edmonton last Friday in his first game back since March 7.
The return of the Frontier Conference MVP to Tech's lineup gives the Orediggers an additional edge, but Hiatt still recognizes the challenge awaiting his team is every bit as daunting as the one that this program faced in its last trip to Missoula. But squaring up with such an imposing opponent in December was by design, and the hope is that Saturday's game gives the Orediggers an opportunity to demonstrate their mettle as Frontier play looms.
"We're going into a hostile environment against an outstanding team, a team that's worthy to win their conference," Hiatt said. "We hope that we're worthy to win our conference at the end of the year. And so for us to be able to put ourselves in this hostile environment early in the year will do nothing but pay dividends down the road."
The Orediggers, who are led in scoring so far this season by Asa Williams (141 points, 17.6 points per game), will be looking to pull out another big-time upset on Saturday, but whether they're facing a Frontier or Big Sky Conference opponent, the approach and the mentality doesn't differ.
"Just stay locked in on the details," said Gray. "Really locking into this game and just keep building on what we've been building on this whole season."
Tech is favored to three-peat as Frontier Conference champions. A win over the Grizzlies would set a formidable tone for the season, but Hiatt said the primary goal on Saturday is for this team to go toe-to-toe with the Griz.
"This team has big aspirations, we believe that we can accomplish some lofty goals this year," said Hiatt. "In order for us to do that, you have to be able to compete with the likes of the Griz. Not necessarily go and beat them, but you have to compete and show that you're worthy to be on that floor."
Montana (4-4) has already faced a Frontier Conference opponent this week, blowing past MSU-Northern 91-67 on Tuesday. The Grizzlies have been paced by the scoring of Aanen Moody and Money Williams who are averaging 14.5 and 13.8 points per game, respectively.