(Editor's note: University of Montana media release)
MISSOULA — Montana closed its regular season on Saturday night with a one-point home loss to Sacramento State, 72-71. The Grizzlies only led for 2 minutes, 29 seconds of the second half, but had opportunities late, including a game-tying free-throw attempt in the final 2 seconds.
Montana, which had already secured the No. 5 seed in next week's Big Sky tournament, scored the game's first six points and led for the first 19 minutes of the first half until Sacramento State closed on a 5-0 run to take a 29-28 advantage into the locker room.
On Montana's first possession of the second half, sophomore Josh Bannan converted an and-1, giving him a double-double just more than 20 minutes into the game and giving the Grizzlies a 31-29 lead. Sacramento State's Bryce Fowler answered with a 3-pointer on the Hornets' next possession, though, putting the visitors back on top.
"We got off to a good start, and I thought we were focused on all of the right things," head coach Travis DeCuire said. "We were executing, we were defending, the ball was moving.
"We lost our way a little bit and then got off to a slow start to the (second) half. You've got to earn wins and we didn't do that for 40 minutes tonight."
Montana wouldn't hold a lead again for another 14 minutes and a big part of that was Fowler, who scored 39 points on 14-of-25 shooting, plus a perfect 10-of-10 from the free-throw line. He also added five assists.
"What he really did was exposed us with his passing, because you want to help, and he was really good at finding where the help was coming from. Whether that led to an assist or a hockey assist, he executed two or three times out of timeouts and found some guys when we had backed off to help.
"I told him after the game that he's about all of the things that exemplify college basketball. His commitment, his loyalty to his school. He could have jumped into the (transfer) portal and could have played a lot of places, but he hung in there."
Despite Fowler's monstrous night, Montana still had chances.
A Fowler floater pushed the Hornets' lead to 49-42 with 12:01 to play, but over the next 6 minutes, Montana used a 16-6 run to take its first lead since the opening minute of the second half.
The Grizzlies made 5-of-6 shot attempts during that stretch, getting back-to-back 3-pointers from Bannan and junior Josh Vazquez, before a Vazquez steal led to a Cameron Parker transition layup, and moments later, a Sacramento State miss led to Derrick Carter-Hollinger free throws, giving Montana a 56-55 lead. The lead was extended to 58-55 following another breakaway layup for Parker, but then Montana went cold.
Sacramento State scored on four straight trips up the court while Montana went 0-for-4 with two turnovers, turning a three-point Griz lead into game-high-tying seven-point deficit, 67-60 with 51 seconds to play.
"We had some guys in there that were scrapping," DeCuire said. "People will remember his 3, but Josh Vazquez came in and got his hands on the ball, and the effort he had on the defensive end gave us a chance."
Needing a miracle, the Grizzlies almost got just that.
A Brandon Whitney driving layup with 39.1 seconds to play cut the score to 67-62. Montana fouled the Hornets, who made 1-of-2 free throws, before junior Lonnell Martin Jr. hit a 3-pointer with 25.2 seconds to play (67-65).
Then things got real crazy.
Bannan stole a pass in the backcourt and made both free throws after being fouled, cutting the deficit to just a single point, 68-67, with 20.6 seconds on the clock.
Sacramento State nearly turned the ball over again on the in-bounds pass, needing to instead burn its final timeout. On the second try, the Hornets got the ball in and made both free throws (70-67 with 18 seconds to play) before Whitney answered with a quick floater (70-69 with 12 seconds to play).
Fowler again made both free throws after being fouled, setting up one last opportunity for the Grizzlies. Martin got two looks to tie the game, with the second attempt nearly rattling in as a whistle was called. Needing to knock down all three free throws to send the game to overtime, Martin made the first two before missing the final one. With 1.6 seconds to play, Carter-Hollinger secured the miss and kicked it back to senior Scott Blakney, whose off-balanced, mid-range jumper from the corner was short.
"The big 3 from the corner from Lonnell was huge, and then Bannan's steal . . . Their effort was there in those situations, but those things don't happen for you when you don't earn it," DeCuire said. "We've got to find a way to do that for a full 40 minutes."
Bannan recorded his seventh double-double of Big Sky play with 20 points and a career-high 15 rebounds. He also added three assists and two steals. Bannan was one of four Grizzlies in double figures, with Parker – playing in his final game inside Dahlberg Arena, along with Blakney and Freddy Brown III – scoring 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting; Whitney totaling 11 points; and Martin finishing with 10.
Montana narrowly out-shot the Hornets (.481 to .472) but was just 5-of-21 from deep, compared to 7-of-14 for the Hornets. Sacramento State got 39 points from Fowler and 17 from William FitzPatrick, with all 72 of the team's points coming from its five starters.
Montana will now turn its attention to the Big Sky tournament, beginning Thursday at 2:30 p.m. vs. No. 4-seed Weber State. It will mark the ninth time in 12 seasons that the top-two teams in Big Sky history will meet in the conference tournament.
"Tonight is a learning experience, and now it's on to a new season for us next week," DeCuire said.