MISSOULA — The disappointment was evident Thursday night.
Aanen Moody was putting up free throws in his warmup gear. Mack Anderson walked around the court with his hands on his head. Travis DeCuire was stoic and quietly observing the scene at Dahlberg Arena. All were grappling with the opportunity that had just slipped away.
The Montana men's basketball team had just lost to one of their biggest rivals, Weber State, on a last-second 3-pointer by the Wildcats to lose 59-57 on their home court. UM had the ball with 4.9 seconds left and was in the lead, but the inbounds pass was intercepted and quickly turned into three points, as Weber State stole one on the road, and dropped UM to 2-3 in Big Sky Conference play in the process.
It was a sequence that was in line with a pattern for the Grizzlies this year: Build a lead, have success in spurts, lose momentum and, ultimately, the game.
"It shouldn't have come down to that," said DeCuire, UM's ninth-year coach. "Good teams don't beat themselves and free throws, turnovers, shot selection down the stretch. This is a game we should've put 70 points on the board if we just take care of the ball and get the right shot. We had the opportunity to push it 10, 12 and we didn't take care of the ball or get good shots and you put pressure on yourself to come down to that possession."
The theme of beating themselves has been a familiar one for the Griz over the last few years, and has reared its head again this season. The Grizzlies are 0-3 in one-possession games this season, and 0-2 in those scenarios in conference play.
"We're beating ourselves," DeCuire said. "We need to become (a good team)."
Whether it's missed free throws down the stretch of games, turnovers, or questionable shot attempts, the areas of improvement for Montana are plenty — and consistent. For DeCuire, the catalyst has been the inability to sustain stretches of success.
"It's been an ongoing conversation, right? And so that becomes a part of mental toughness," DeCuire said. "Sometimes adversity is hard to play through, but success is too, and when you're doing things the right way, and you're playing well, sometimes it's hard to keep doing those things, and we obviously are proving that point. NAU, Northern Colorado, this game, even Eastern Washington are games where we had some momentum, we had some mojo, and we kind of gave it away with poor shot selection, not rebounding the ball, not getting loose balls."
DeCuire said he echoed those sentiments to his players in the locker room after Thursday's loss.
"When you find something that is working for you, you continue to do it until your opponent takes it away and don't go away from it if they don't stop it," he said. "And we just continue to do that, we just have to get better."
Nonconference schedules are hard to glean from, but the Grizzlies showed their potential of why they were picked top three in both preseason Big Sky polls at certain points. They dropped competitive contests to mid-major opponents in Southern Miss (14-4) and Troy (12-6), led Gonzaga — now ranked No. 8 in the country — by double-digits at one point and were in it until the end, and fell by three on the road to Mountain West foe Air Force, but put together a three-game winning streak over South Dakota State, North Dakota State and Prairie View A&M that seemed to indicate things were beginning to click for the Grizzlies in December.
But conference play is where UM has stumbled out of the blocks. The Griz opened against EWU where they led at home by seven in the second half, before the Eagles finished the game winning 87-80. EWU is the lone undefeated team in league play at 4-0 and 10-7 overall.
After a win over Idaho, the Grizzlies traveled to Flagstaff, Ariz., where they lost in overtime to NAU, 75-74, in a game where UM failed to score in the final 2:42 of overtime. They followed that up with arguably their best performance in league play against Northern Colorado, but another one with hiccups. UM led UNC 58-40 with 8:52 to go, but the Bears rallied as UM went cold and got within one point with under a minute to play, before UM held on to win 79-74.
All of that led up to Thursday's matchup with Weber State, another game the Grizzlies, at points, looked in control, but mistakes — mainly turnovers, poor shot selection and missed free throws — cost them at the very end.
"We've had good performances offensively, we just haven't had them for 40 minutes," DeCuire said. "We just have to have enough patience to continue to do the things that are working. And if we do that, we'll be fine, but right now we're struggling to do that."
The Griz have shown the ability to bounce back from losses. It's getting that first game on Thursdays that has evaded them so far.
"You don't want to keep putting yourself in that situation if you want to be in a situation, in terms of the standings, that you're proud of," DeCuire said. "You got to show up on Thursday and you definitely got to show up at home."
That complete 40-minute game has been missing in league play. The offense clicked in games like EWU and UNC, but struggled against Weber State on a night where UM's defense was playing well in holding the Wildcats to just 59 points.
The potential has been proven to be there at moments in the season, but it's the droughts on offense or lulls on defense that has UM playing in more close games than not, and ultimately losing to contenders like EWU and Weber State. However, DeCuire noted throughout the season his team has dealt with various ailments, most recently sickness, which affected starting guards Brandon Whitney and Lonnell Martin Jr. last week and guard Josh Vazquez this week. Because of that, offensive chemistry has been off with players out of practice.
There's still plenty of basketball to be played. The urgency is upped, but the panic mode button doesn't need to be hit yet for Montana. After all, every year it's about who is hot by the time the Big Sky Conference tournament rolls around. Last year, UM started conference play 8-2 before finishing with an 11-9 mark and quarterfinal exit at the tournament.
The 2018-19 Grizzlies, 2021 EWU and last year's Bobcats were all complete squads that dominated all year, but plenty of teams find themselves making runs when things begin to click in the weeks leading up to postseason play.
So with 13 games left in conference play, how UM responds — or doesn't respond — to this rocky start will tell the greater picture of where it stands heading into Boise come early March.
"There's a level of maturity and toughness that comes with being successful, and some luck," DeCuire said. "But if you do all of the right things, sometimes luck comes your way and I've been on that side of it quite a bit. We just got to play the right way for 40 minutes. If we do that, we'll win a lot of games."