The No. 6 Montana men's basketball team defeated No. 11 Idaho 69-64 in the first round of the Big Sky Conference tournament on Wednesday afternoon at Idaho Central Arena in Boise, Idaho.
The win marks UM's seventh straight victory in the conference tournament dating back to the 2017-18 season. Idaho and UM didn't play in the regular season as their series that would've ended the regular season was canceled due to COVID-19 protocols.
Josh Vazquez scored a career-high 21 points thanks to five made 3-pointers and grabbed four steals to lead the Grizzlies (14-12). Brandon Whitney added 13 points and four assists and Robby Beasley tallied 12 points as well. Scott Blakney led Idaho with 17 points and eight rebounds as the Vandals end the season 1-21.
Coming into the game, Montana junior Mack Anderson, who played 11 minutes and grabbed five rebounds, was the lone Grizzly with playing experience in the Big Sky tournament. UM's men never took the floor in Boise last March when the 2020 Big Sky tournament was canceled at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. Josh Bannan finished with eight points and six rebounds while Kyle Owens tallied eight points and five rebounds.
Montana trailed 11-2 in the first 5 1/2 minutes, and started the game 3-11 from the field. However, after that slow start, Montana went 9-13 from the field on it's next stretch of shots, as Vazquez kick-started the offense and the Grizzlies took a 38-30 lead into halftime.
A slow start bogged the Grizzlies down again to start the second half but Montana continued to keep Idaho at arm's length with repeated double-digit leads.
After Montana led by as much as 15 points, Idaho eventually got within 65-62 with 31 seconds left after Montana failed to make a field goal in the final eight minutes of the game, but free throws from Vazquez, Beasley and Whitney helped ice the win for UM and move them on to the next round.
Montana finished shooting at a 38.9% clip from the field and went 7 for 22 from deep. The Vandals, meanwhile, shot the ball at a 50% rate from the field and went 6 for 16 from deep. Montana went 20 for 27 from the free throw line while UI was 8 for 13.
Montana forced 17 Idaho turnovers which it turned into 18 points while the Grizzlies committed just 10 turnovers. Idaho out-rebouned UM 32-30 and out-scored the Griz in the paint 34-18 but Montana had the advantage off the bench, largely thanks to Vazquez, as the Griz out-scored the Vandals 26-9.
Montana takes on No. 3 Weber State in the quarterfinal round on Thursday evening at 8 p.m. The teams split the season series with UM winning 80-67 on Feb. 11 in Missoula while the Wildcats took the Feb. 13 game 91-82.