MISSOULA -- The Montana men's basketball team got Big Sky Conference play started off on the right foot as the Grizzlies defeated Northern Arizona 79-72 on Saturday evening in Dahlberg Arena in front of 4,071 fans.
Sayeed Pridgett led the way once again for the Griz. He scored 27 points on 11-for-22 shooting and he also grabbed 10 rebounds for a double-double. Kendal Manuel added 16 points for the Grizzlies. Pridgett's performance gives him 1,306 career points, which moved him into 11th all-time for the Griz. He passed Derrick Pope (1979-83) and Shawn Samuelson (1992-96) on the night and is 15 points away from tying Ken McKenzie (1972-75) for 10th all-time.
"Huge," Montana coach Travis DeCuire said about the win. "This is a team that's hungry for a win. Probably bit off a little bit more than we can chew in the non-conference and so we've got to get some momentum and typically we'd like to have that going into conference and we're going to have to get that in conference."
Saturday's contest started off slowly with the first basket, a layup from Yagizhan Selcuk, not coming until almost four minutes into the game. Montana would eventually build up a 10-7 lead early, but Northern Arizona found its stroke from deep, getting three straight 3-pointers and a layup as the Lumberjacks used an 11-0 run to catapult themselves into the lead.
Pridgett threw down a dunk over an NAU defender out of the timeout to end that run, but Montana was forced to play catchup for the rest of the first half and well into the second.
"The biggest thing was turnovers," DeCuire said. "We came down and twice had position with where we wanted to go to get the ball in the post and whatnot, or we had a guy coming off of a screen for an open shot, and we just tried to do too much and we turned it over.
"Once we settled down and stopped turning it over we slowed them down."
NAU went 7 for 14 from deep in the first half as the Lumberjacks went into halftime up 34-28.
Pridgett took over in the second half where he scored 18 of his points, and all of Manuel's points came in the second frame. After coming out of the break and hitting a 3-pointer to make it a three-point game, Manuel gave UM its first lead since that 10-7 mark when he sank two free throws with 9:21 left in the game to make it 56-55. The Griz never trailed again after that point and those free throws came in a stretch of a 10-0 Montana run that put the Grizzlies up 62-55. Manuel and Kyle Owens each scored four in that stretch while Pridgett added a jumper.
NAU got back within three at 71-68 with 2:10 to go, but Manuel knocked down four more free throws down the stretch and Timmy Falls and Pridgett each scored to send the Grizzlies out of the game with a win. The Griz finished shooting 30 for 60 from the field while NAU was 25 for 59 (42.4 percent). Montana out-rebounded NAU 37-33 and forced 15 Lumberjack turnovers. Josh Vazquez led UM with five assists while Cameron Shelton led NAU with 17 points. After the hot first half, NAU went 1 for 5 from 3-point range in the second half while Montana finished 3 for 9 from beyond the arc.
"It was exciting. It was really good to play with my guys for my first conference game," freshman Derrick Carter-Hollinger said. "Coming back after Christmas break and really get together, it just feels really good."
Carter-Hollinger finished with eight points off the bench for Montana. He scored two of UM's first three second-half baskets to keep the game within one possession, including a dunk that ignited the crowd early on.
While thrown into the fire - and having just turned 18 on Dec. 11 - as one of Montana's newest faces, Carter-Hollinger said he wasn't nervous heading into his first conference game of his young career.
"Coach Trav preaches the intensity of this conference. We have one of the most intense teams that we play in this conference so I was excited and ready to play," Carter-Hollinger said. "First conference game as a Griz was pretty good."
Montana (5-7 overall, 1-0 Big Sky Conference) welcomes Sacramento State (7-3, 0-1) on Monday night at Dahlberg. Tipoff is set for 7 p.m.