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Near-perfect start paces Montana to double-digit victory over Northern Arizona

Brandon Whitney
Posted at 7:54 PM, Jan 14, 2021

MISSOULA — Montana began Thursday's Big Sky Conference men's basketball tilt in dream fashion against Northern Arizona.

In the first four minutes, Montana went 3-pointer, free throw, 3-pointer, jumper, two free throws, 3-pointer and one more 3-pointer. In that span, the defense forced three turnovers.

Just like that, the Griz led 17-0 over the Lumberjacks and cruised the rest of the way for a 67-56 win at Dahlberg Arena. The win improved Montana to .500 at 6-6 overall and 2-3 in conference play.

Michael Steadman racked up his second double-double of the season with 13 points and 11 rebounds. His first made shot from deep this season -- and just second attempt -- capped off that initial Montana lead as the Griz eventually went into halftime up 41-19 after shooting 61.9% from the field and 6 of 9 from deep. Meanwhile Montana's defense held NAU to 6-for-24 shooting in the opening half and forced six turnovers.

Photos: Montana builds big lead, races past Northern Arizona

"(Coach Travis DeCuire) came with a plan he wanted us to be the first to everything," Steadman explained. "First rebound, make them call the first timeout, so I think us coming out of the gate with that energy, carried on throughout the first half."

Montana ultimately finished the game shooting 51.2% from the field and 8 for 20 from 3-point range. Josh Vazquez led all Grizzlies with 15 points and grabbed six rebounds while Kyle Owens added 13 points for UM. Brandon Whitney led UM with five assists.

"We didn't want to lose to them again," said Vazquez, referring to NAU's 57-56 win over UM in Flagstaff the last time the two teams met last February. "Just thinking about that throughout the game, we just tried to come with energy because a loss, that carries on for a while until you get a win."

In the second half, Montana started hot again, and Vazquez drilled a 3-pointer at the 13:02 mark to make it 58-31 to give Montana its biggest lead. From there, UM's offense stalled, as NAU built a run and made things interesting with a 16-0 stretch to trim the deficit to 58-47. A jumper from Steadman ended the run with 3:48 to go, making it almost 10 minutes of game time without points for the Griz.

"Got off to a good start, probably best start we’ve gotten off to in about two or three years I think," DeCuire said. "Defensively we were tuned in. I think the biggest thing offensively is we moved the ball. It was a good sight to see when were turning down OK shots for better shots, not too concerned with who was getting those shots. Phenomenal job on the glass in the first half.

"We lost sight a little bit (in the second half). I think we started playing to the score and then they make their run and we made it a little tighter than we wanted it to be down the stretch. But they’ll be better Saturday and we need to be better Saturday as well."

"We were missing a lot of wide-open shots too," Steadman added. "I don't know what it was, we just fell into a funk where we weren't making anything. So I felt like we were sticking to what we do and eventually the shots are going to fall."

NAU (3-9, 2-4 Big Sky) finished shooting 37% from the field as Cameron Shelton led the way with 19 points. The Griz had a 34 to 30 advantage on the glass, though NAU did grab 14 offensive boards. The Griz welcome NAU again on Saturday, with tipoff scheduled for 11 a.m.

Notes: Lolo native Charles Burns entered the game in the final seconds for NAU. Burns, a sophomore for the Lumberjacks, was an all-conference basketball player at Missoula Loyola and led the Rams to the State B title game in 2019.