MISSOULA — With Montana's road trip to Spokane now in the books, the nonconference portion of the men's and women's basketball schedules are complete.
Both UM programs challenged themselves over the course of the last two months with rugged non-league schedules that wrapped up with the men playing Gonzaga on Tuesday and the women taking on the Bulldogs on Wednesday.
The Griz men pushed the 11th-ranked Bulldogs to the brink, and even led by double-digits, but ran out of gas at the end.
Still, nearly topping a nationally ranked team was a sign of how things have been improving and trending lately for UM, who sits at 6-6 after nonconference play.
"We competed. I'm proud of that," Griz men's coach Travis DeCuire said. "We had too many four-minute, five-minute lulls. They ramped up defensively in the second half when we got our lead. I didn't think we responded very well and it took us to the locker room to come out and then respond, but we've got a chance to be a pretty good basketball team if we can be a little more consistent."
The women also played ranked Gonzaga and were close a couple of times.
After the Bulldogs pulled away, that dropped Montana to 4-7 on the year so far.
"You know I feel like their experience made a big difference," Lady Griz coach Brian Holsinger said. "We have freshmen and sophomores out there playing a ton, and for us this is a team where if you make a mistake, whether you just do something wrong on defense, they make you pay. And they made us pay quite a few times there with hitting perimeter shots. That was the really difference in the game they made a few more threes than us, we battled them on the glass, but proud of our team overall but the more experienced team made more plays and found a way to win here at home."
It was a grueling stretch for both programs.
The Lady Griz played just two teams with losing records — both wins for UM — with every other team on their schedule sporting at least seven wins to this point of the season, including a pair of Pac-12 opponents and a Mountain West foe among other high-conference competition.
Still, UM staying competitive against high-level teams with a young team — plus the return from injury of all-league forward Carmen Gfeller mid-way through nonconference — gives Holsinger confidence heading into Big Sky play. Gfeller is averaging 10.8 points and five rebounds per game in six games since her return, while Sammy Fatkin leads the team in scoring with 13.5 points per game after utilizing her extra season. Idaho transfer Gina Marxen has also proved to be a fit at UM with 10.4 points per contest while leading the team with four assists per game.
The freshman trio of Libby Stump, Mack Konig and Alex Pirog have all been thrown into heavy minutes early, with Stump averaging 10.9 points per game with Konig chipping in 6.4 points and 2.4 assists per contest and Pirog adding 4.5 rebounds a game. Plus, forward Keeli Burton-Oliver has made an impact as a starter with 6.6 points and 4.6 rebounds per game, while sophomores Haley Huard (5.5 ppg) and Dani Bartsch (4.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg) continue to improve in their second years.
"I like them," Holsinger said. "We're young but we got a good mix of veterans and they are just a great group, high character kids that I think, we've had a tough preseason, probably if not the toughest preseason in the Big Sky, and so I see that paying off for us in the start of conference."
For the men, they have played eight teams with at least eight wins so far this year, including a pair of Big East games as well as a number of challenging mid-major foes.
After injury, sickness and personal matters kept their core unit from playing together consistently, over the last few weeks, the Griz showed their potential with everyone back, and that resulted in three straight wins before UM almost topped Gonzaga.
Junior Josh Bannan, a preseason all-league pick, is off to a hot start with 15.7 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game, which leads the team in all categories. Fellow junior Brandon Whitney also also emerged as a leader with 12.8 points, 2.7 assists and 1.2 steals per game, while Colorado State transfer Dischon Thomas (12.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and Southern Utah transfer Aanen Moody (14.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 2.0 apg) have both found their grooves with the Griz.
Lonnell Martin Jr. has continued to thrive as a starter in his second year at UM with seven points and 2.6 rebounds per game, while seniors Josh Vazquez (4.4 ppg) and Mack Anderson (2.7 rpg) have also provided experience and depth for UM. Transfers Jonathan Brown and Laolu Oke, along with freshman Jaxon Nap, have all found themselves rotated into the mix as well.
"Our offense has gotten a lot better. We're more consistent," DeCuire said. "We finally have our lineup together for long stretches, and so the potential of our team (is there), so now we just have to get through the holiday and be healthy going into this first home stretch and see if we can get off to a 2-0 start."
The Griz also earned guaranteed game payouts from three games this season. According to game contracts obtained by MTN Sports, UM earned $90,000 from their game against Xavier, $80,000 from Gonzaga and $70,000 from Duquense, totaling $240,000. UM also paid out $35,000 to Merrimack, $30,000 to St. Thomas and $25,000 to Troy for those three schools attending the Zootown Classic multi-team event tournament that UM hosted for the second straight year back in November. UM also paid MSU-Northern $3,200 for their men's team to visit, while it paid the University of Providence and Montana Tech $3,500 each for their women's teams to travel to Missoula.
Comparing that amount to previous years for the men's program, UM earned $205,000 in 2021-22 in guaranteed game money, $255,000 in 2020-21, $355,000 in 2019-20 and $195,000 in 2018-19. For more info on that trend, click here.
Also of note, the Lady Griz scheduled a home-and-home with Washington State. UM visited WSU on Dec. 2, a 77-57 loss, and will host the Cougars in the 2023-24 season as part of the negotiated contract.
Both programs now have some time off before the men host Eastern Washington to begin Big Sky play on Dec. 29, while the women begin league play on the road that same day at EWU. Then on Dec. 31, both programs will take on Idaho.