Back in the 2014-15 season, during Travis DeCuire‘s first run through Big Sky play as Montana’s new head men’s basketball coach, the Griz went to Sacramento State and lost a 70-69 nail biter, then came back home and dropped a second-straight game to Eastern Washington five days later.
Montana then went on to win seven of their next eight games, and later hung a banner with a share of the regular-season conference championship.
The Griz have been down this road before, and have come out smiling on the other end.
After suffering a pair of road losses to Portland State and Sacramento State, DeCuire and the Grizzlies return home to play five of their next seven games, with full intentions of hanging another banner from the rafters of Dahlberg Arena.
“By no means do I look at our team and get concerned about our ability, we just have to get our brain right, our effort has got to improve, and our chemistry has got to continue to improve on the defensive side of the ball. Those are all areas that we can control.” said the third-year coach.
“So we’re going to keep fighting for the top end of the standings, and we’ll be ready when it’s time to go to Reno.”
THE GAME: Montana’s quest for another Big Sky Championship continues on Thursday when the Griz (10-11, 5-3 BSC) get their first rematch of the season when Eastern Washington (13-7, 5-2 BSC) comes to the Garden City. Tipoff from Dahlberg Arena is set for 7:00 p.m.
After UM found success against EWU on the road just three weeks ago, the Griz feel like the pieces are in place for Thursday’s crucial Big Sky matchup, and are looking inward for improvement as the highly-respected Eagles come to town.
“We’re talking about the Griz right now and fixing the Griz,” said DeCuire. “The second time around is usually less time consuming with the prep and more about adjustments, what when right, and what went wrong.”
“To me, we were a team that was ready to go to war, ready to compete and fight (in Cheney), and we need to do that again.”
WATCH/LISTEN: Fans around the globe can watch the Griz take on the Eagles live and free of charge on the league’s digital video streaming platform, WatchBigSky.com, and via the Big Sky Conference Mobile App, available to download free from the App Store.
The “Voice of the Griz” Riley Corcoran will bring you the statewide radio call on the Montana Grizzlies Radio Network. An audio-only stream of the radio call is also available at GoGriz.com. Fans can also follow live twitter updates @UMGRIZZLIES_BB, and live stats are available at GrizStats.com.
FUN STUFF: The Press Box will host a pregame tailgate party ahead of the Eastern Washington clash, and everyone in Dahlberg Arena that night will get the chance to win cash in a halftime paper airplane toss.
SERIES HISTORY: Following Montana’s historic road sweep at Idaho and Eastern Washington in early January, the Griz hold a 66-41 advantage over the Eagles, and are 27-9 at Dahlberg Arena since 1983.
LAST MATCHUP: Montana handed Eastern Washington its first home loss of the season on Jan. 7 when the Griz closed out the game by going on a 9-2 run comprised entirely of shots from the free throw line, to take the 65-59 win in a see-saw battle at Reese Court.
Michael Oguine and Ahmaad Rorie combined for 29 second-half points after going scoreless in the first half, and Oguine went 4-of-5 from behind the arc to pull the Griz ahead late. Walter Wright was another major factor, scoring a team-high 19 points.
“We found a way to win without scoring a ton of points, and we made it very difficult for them defensively,” said DeCuire. “I thought our mental toughness was incredible in that game.”
IMPLICATIONS: With five of their next seven games played at home, the Griz will need every ounce of home-court support to return to the top of the Big Sky table. Montana now trails Eastern Washington and North Dakota – two teams UM has already beat this season – in the league standings, while Weber State remains the league’s top team.
At 5-3, the Griz remain just one game back from jumping back into second place on the table, and EWU is the first road block from making that happen.
With Idaho and Montana State on deck for the Griz, each of the next three games in Missoula represents a major opportunity for UM to solidify a first-round bye at the league tourney with a top-five finish.
GRIZ TRACKS: Fabijan Krslovic has been on fire. Over the course of the last three games, he’s netted a total of 50 points, posted a double-double, and twice set a new career high in scoring, shattering his previous best with 24 points at Portland State.
Saturday’s start at Sacramento State was the 70th of his career, and he’s one of only two players (along with Rorie) to start every game for the Griz this season.
The junior from Australia is listed in the top 15 in five different Big Sky Conference statistical categories, including being ranked as the league’s No. 6 overall rebounder, averaging seven boards per game. He also has the fourth-most offensive rebounds in the league, averaging 2.5 per game.
Long known as a defensive standout, Krslovic is feeling the shooters touch in the paint, evidenced by his 24 points against Portland State, a product of solid execution against the Viking’s zone defense. As a result, he’s now got the best field goal percentage on the team, making nearly 58 percent of his shots.
Thursday, Jan. 26 is Australia Day in the land down under, so it’s only fitting Krslovic continues his hot streak.
Also having a breakout game on the road last week was true freshman Sayeed Pridgett, who posted a career high of 28 points in Sacramento, feeling the flow in front of a big crowd that came to cheer him on from his hometown of Oakland, Calif.
“We knew he had it in him,” said DeCuire. “Sometimes they say luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, and he was prepared for that game.”
Thanks in part to Pridgett, Montana’s shooting percentages have increased dramatically over the last two games, despite taking a pair of losses. When the Griz and Eagles met last in Cheney, UM was averaging 72.3 points per game and has now bumped that average up to 73.8 after scoring 83 points at Sac. State to tie their second-highest output of the season.
Montana also posted its best field goal percentage against the Hornets, making nearly 54 percent of all shots. But on a team loaded with guards, UM has seen its three-point output fall, making only 10 attempts from behind the arc in the last two games.
While showing more aggressive offense, the Grizzlies’ defense took a step back on the road too, allowing the Hornets to score the most points than any team this season with 92. It was the first time UM has allowed an opponent to score more than 88 in a game.
GRIZ BITS: Brandon Gfeller picked up his 60th career start in Sacramento. He needs just 23 more three-pointers to break the UM school record for career triples … The Griz only shot nine free throws against Sac. State, making eight of them. The Hornets, by comparison, shot 27 and made 19. It was the second time this season UM has shot less than 10 free throws in a game, and the sixth time they have made less than 10 in a game. The Griz are 3-3 when making less than 10 free throws and 3-11 when shooting fewer free throws than their opposition.
ON DECK: The Idaho Vandals visit Dahlberg Arena looking for redemption on Saturday, Jan. 28, following the Grizzlies’ 70-57 win in Moscow three weeks back. Fans around the state can tune in to watch the game on SWX Montana. Check local listings to find the game in your area.
That’s also the night of the ninth annual GSA Fan Appreciation Tailgate Party from 4:30 to 6:30 in the Adams Center’s East Auxiliary Gym. Hot dogs and chips will be available to purchase for $1, and for those over the age of 21, beer will also be sold. The event will also feature music, prizes and an appearance by Monte and the UM Spirit Squad.