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Surging Montana basketball teams look to avenge losses in rematches with Montana State

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Posted at 9:00 AM, Feb 17, 2023

MISSOULA — When the final buzzer sounded twice in Missoula on Jan. 21, the end result was the same for each University of Montana basketball team, but each with different paths.

The Montana Lady Griz fell to rival Montana State 72-63 in a game where MSU jumped out fast to start both halves, but in the second half, kept their lead and blew UM out behind a 22-point performance by Big Sky Conference great Darian White, and a supporting cast of Grace Beasley, Kola Bad Bear and Lexi Deden that gave the Bobcats their eighth win over the Lady Griz in the past nine meetings.

The men's game was a more competitive affair, one that came down to the wire as a UM buzzer-beater attempt was off the mark and the Bobcats won 67-64 for their first win in Missoula since 2010. RaeQuan Battle and Jubrile Belo were key as vets in the game, but it was newcomer Darius Brown II who stole the show with 23 points for the Bobcats.

On the UM side, the sting was there from losing to its rival in its home building. Self-inflicted wounds, out-of-character play, not rising to the moment, it was all there for the Griz in the postgame press conference.

"We just didn’t come out playing the right way," Lady Griz coach Brian Holsinger said.

"To win close games you need to be as solid as possible and not commit errors that beat yourself," men's coach Travis DeCuire explained.

Since that day, which marked the near halfway point of Big Sky play, both UM programs seemingly took those losses to heart and found themselves, and have discovered ways to to turn their respective seasons around.

The loss to MSU capped a rough week for the Lady Griz who five days earlier fell to Eastern Washington 87-60 in Missoula. But since losing to MSU, UM has gone 5-1, including a comeback win over Sacramento State and a road overtime victory over Northern Arizona, both teams that are currently ahead of the Lady Griz in the conference standings.

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Montana's Keeli Burton-Oliver, left, Sammy Fatkin, center, and Haley Huard, right, walk off the court for a timeout during the Big Sky Conference game against Montana State University at Dahlberg Arena Saturday, January 21, 2023. The Bobcats won 72-63.

"We just knew that we could've played better in both of those games (against EWU and MSU) than we showed," Lady Griz guard Gina Marxen said. "So I think using both of those games as motivation just to get better and start to play a little bit closer to the potential that we could reach."

A big part of that has been the lineup change Holsinger opted to make after the MSU loss. He inserted Mack Konig and Dani Bartsch into the starting lineup and moved Keeli Burton-Oliver and Haley Huard into reserve roles, and the team has since run with it.

Konig's fast-paced, aggressive style at point guard has opened opportunities on offense for scorers like Sammy Fatkin, Carmen Gfeller and Gina Marxen, while Konig herself has proven to be an effective shooter and attacker. Libby Stump has become the first off the bench for instant offense, while Burton-Oliver continues to add depth at post even as the starting lineup has gotten smaller.

Bartsch, meanwhile, has emerged as the team's best hustle player, whether it's defense or rebounding. But in each game, the Lady Griz have showcased their depth and that any one player can be the biggest reason behind a win, while their defense has steadily improved.

That change in the lineup has created life anew for UM (13-12, 9-5 Big Sky), and it gives the Lady Griz confidence heading into the rematch.

"We do things differently," Holsinger said. "The team you saw at the end of the game against (MSU) is the team that actually starts now. We feel really good about where we're at. We want to continue to improve, this game or not. This game is obviously really important for everybody but for us we're trying to be our best at the conference tournament. So this is a good test on the road for us against a good team who has proven to be good this year and we expect to go there and play well."

For Gfeller, who has seen the rivalry longer than anyone on UM's current roster or coaching staff, it's a game that carries a big opportunity for UM's program with the conference tournament coming up in two weeks.

"I think (the loss) helped our team turn a corner as far as our mentality and how we approach big games," Gfeller said. "I think our team is a lot different now compared to how we were playing then. It's super encouraging that we've gotten so much better so I look forward to seeing what we put together.

"I love rivalry games and I think they make the sport so much fun. Nothing would really fuel this team like being able to go out and get a win, especially in Brick Breeden, which in the last few years that I've been here we haven't been able to do that."

For the men, the loss to MSU wasn't even the full catalyst they needed. That came the next game when UM played at Sacrament State and got blown out 67-48 by the Hornets. A team meeting was held after that game, and the Grizzlies (14-12, 8-6) have put together five wins in a row.

"I think humility is the best way to get someone's attention," DeCuire said. "You don't wish that on yourself. I would never want to experience that again with the team, but we had everyone's undivided attention, but more importantly, they had each other's attention. And so when guys spoke up about how they felt we were and how we were playing, everyone was listening. And we got our points across and we moved on."

After being unable to close out tight games early in the year, Montana has found a way to right that ship.

"We've been playing the right way. We've had a stretch two weeks now of playing basketball the right way, playing together and emotionally being attached to the game," DeCuire said. "And if we can continue with that, I think we'll continue to play good basketball. I don't know how long the streak will go, but for me, I'm more concerned how often we play well as opposed to our streak."

While without senior forward Mack Anderson since the MSU game due a lower leg injury — aside from a brief appearance against Idaho State last Thursday — the Griz have seen Southern Utah transfer Aanen Moody break out in a big way offensively to aid the likes of Josh Bannan and Brandon Whitney who had carried most of the load.

Colorado State transfer Dischon Thomas and Lonnell Martin Jr. have been steady offensive threats and have improved defensively, and Laolu Oke has stepped in the place of Anderson to provide post rebounding and defense.

Winning close games has built confidence, and has been the biggest reason why they've turned things around.

"I'm just starting to get comfortable and I think as a team we're just coming together and we're starting to figure out not only who we are as people but who we are as players," Moody said. "Chemistry takes time and I think the difference between the first half of the conference season and the second half so far has just been that camaraderie that we have together."

The women will clash at 2 p.m. on Saturday while the men tip off at 7 p.m. at Worthington Arena in Bozeman. The MSU men will be looking to sweep UM in the regular season for the first time since 2010, while the Lady Griz are looking for their first road victory against the Bobcats since 2014.

It's sure to be a packed house for two of the biggest games of the year, with all four programs ready to make a statement with the Treasure State watching.

"Best defensive team will win that night," DeCuire said. "I think we both are trying to find ways to hold our opponent to in the 50s that night and hopefully we can accomplish it without only scoring in the 50s."