MISSOULA — Despite leading by 17 points late in the first half, the Montana Grizzlies let that lead slip away as Northern Arizona rebounded from Thursday's loss to top the Griz 62-58 on Saturday morning in Dahlberg Arena.
Brandon Whitney led Montana (6-7, 2-4 Big Sky) with 22 points while Michael Steadman added nine points and nine rebounds.
After Montana started on a 17-0 run against NAU in Thursday's win, the Griz offense was slow to get going on Saturday. However, Montana ultimately built a 17-6 lead thanks to nine points from Whitney during that run and ultimately led 34-17 in the final minute of the first half after a Steadman jumper, Montana's largest lead of the game.
The second half belonged to NAU. The Lumberjacks shot 50% from the floor and 4 for 8 from deep as they steadily climbed back into the game. UM meanwhile shot 36.8% from the field after a 53.8% mark in the opening half. The Lumberjacks also forced Montana into eight turnovers in that frame.
"I think down the stretch it came down to execution on both ends, defense and offense," Whitney said. "We just weren't executing our offense and offensive boards killed us at the end."
NAU finished with nine offensive rebounds on Saturday after grabbing 14 on Thursday.
"It's kind of been the tale of two halves for us here," DeCuire added. "I think at the end of the day, we just have to be a little tougher when it matters most. You get to that eight- or nine-minute mark, every loose ball, every long rebound, every extra pass and taking care of the ball gets highlighted a lot more than they are in the first half."
After NAU trimmed the UM lead to 45-44 with 11:36 left, Montana responded with threes from Josh Vazquez and Whitney to create separation again. But Whitney's jumper with 5:32 to play to give the Griz a 58-50 lead was the last time Montana scored in the game.
Two free throws from Cameron Shelton gave NAU a 59-58 lead with 1:50 to play, its first since an 8-6 advantage at the beginning of the game, and after stopping the next two Montana offensive possessions, the Lumberjacks got a big offense rebound from Carson Towt after a missed jumper from Shelton that led to two free throws from Nik Mains after UM was forced to foul. That gave NAU a 61-58 edge with 10 seconds to play. Montana ultimately missed the game-tying shot and the Lumberjacks finished the comeback to improve to 4-9 overall and 3-4 in Big Sky Conference play.
Mains led the Lumberjacks with 17 points after missing Thursday's contest due to injury while Shelton added 15.
Losing leads has been a theme for Montana this season, especially in the six conference games. Even after a convincing win against NAU on Thursday, the Lumberjacks still held the Griz scoreless for over 10 minutes as they made it interesting down the stretch.
"It's hard, it's really hard to do, especially after being up by so much and then losing a lead and losing the game," Derrick Carter-Hollinger said. "As a team in kind of hurts because we know we could've beat that team, we know what we could've done but the fact that we didn't get it done just hurts. But then when Trav comes and talks to us and we talk among each other and cheer each other up, but its hard to do.
"At the end of the day, we are a team, we do this together. Nobody is by themselves. We just make sure we've got our brother's backs."
"We're just learning to stay together," Whitney added. "We have to finish off possessions. ... That's what we're trying to accomplish is stay together, get together and finish off."
DeCuire said losing these leads has been another byproduct of the lack of experience his young team has.
"It's experience. You have to have some success and as you do that you start to have more confidence and I think that's always going to be an issue when someone's on a run, your confidence wavers and you have to find ways to recreate it," DeCuire said. "And we did that. We snapped back and made our own run. We just didn't sustain it and we had some balls not bounce our way. Some balls that should've gone in, didn't, and there's some rebounds we should've got that we didn't.
"At the end of the day you just have to have more energy and be more aggressive down the stretch and we're not there right now."