(Editor's note: University of Montana Media Release)
MISSOULA -- Montana is 6-1 to open Big Sky Conference play following a 67-63 home victory over Idaho on Saturday night. The victory was the 1,000th home win in program history.
Montana's coaching staff spent all week praising Idaho and recognizing that the Vandals were better than their 1-4 conference mark, which is at the bottom of the Big Sky standings. That was evident on Saturday as the Vandals, under interim head coach Zac Claus, continued to fight back every time Montana would throw a strong punch.
Despite never trailing in the second half, Idaho kept within striking distance each step of the way. After Montana took a game-high nine-point lead, 57-48 with 5:34 to play, Idaho cut the score to just two, 61-59 – and had the ball – with less than 1 minute to play.
As it has done several times this month, though, Montana showed its poise down the stretch. The Grizzlies got a big block from freshman Derrick Carter-Hollinger – one of his four stuffs on the night – which led to a big bucket on the other end from senior Jared Samuelson – his career-high 23rd point of night. That gave Montana a four-point lead with 19 seconds to play, but Idaho had one more counterpunch, nailing a three-pointer with 3.4 seconds on the clock, to once again cut the score to two.
After Carter-Hollinger came up big moments earlier with the block, fellow freshman Kyle Owens' turn came next, as he got fouled on the inbound.
Going to the line with the chance to ice the game, Owens swished both shots, giving Montana the 67-63 victory.
Montana's three seniors were all in double figures for scoring, led by Samuelson's 23 points on 9-of-15 shooting, which featured five made three-pointers for the 6-7 forward.
(on grinding out a victory)
"Tonight was a tough one. I think it's an opportunity for us to grow. The last couple games, offense came to us pretty easily, and this team defends us differently than what we've been seeing. We had to grind this one out, and I thought it was healthy for us."
(on Idaho's defense)
"They play a pack-line defense; there's four bodies inside the paint at all times. When Sayeed (Pridgett) and Kendal (Manuel) have the ball, they collapse on them, so we had to do a good job with our second and third options."
(on Samuelson's big night)
"The way they defend the ball screen, they hedge hard. Most teams, the five man doesn't shoot, so they were leaving him open. Guys, Sayeed (Pridgett) and Josh (Vazquez), got him going in the first half. We did a good job of executing the ball-screen coverage."
(on Montana's pressure on defense)
"The 17 turnovers is what won us the game. When teams have a negative assist-to-turnover ratio, most teams aren't going to win. We deflected a lot of balls and disrupted them."
Montana will now play its next three games on the road, traveling to Idaho State (Thursday), Weber State (Saturday) and Portland State (Jan. 29). The Big Sky Conference witnessed a few surprises on the week, most notably Northern Colorado losing at home to Northern Arizona. Montana now owns a 1.5-game lead on Northern Colorado, Eastern Washington and Southern Utah. The league's seven other teams all have at least four losses.