CHENEY, Wash. – With the two best free throw shooting teams in the Big Sky conference going toe-to-toe, it was inevitable that the game between Montana and Eastern Washington was going to be heavily influenced by shots from the charity stripe.
Sure enough, Montana (8-9 3-1 BSC) went on a 9-2 run built entirely of free throws to close out the game, pulling away from Eastern Washington (10-6, 2-1 BSC) for a key 65-59 win in Cheney, Wash., handing the Eagles their first home loss of the season.
After beating Idaho on Thursday, the Grizzlies’ win over Eastern gives the Griz a two-game Big Sky road sweep, something Montana hadn’t done since head coach Travis DeCuire was a senior at UM in 1994. It’s also the first time any team in the conference has picked up the Palouse sweep since Idaho rejoined the league in 2014.
After the whole team suffered through a first half slump, Sophomores Michael Oguine, and Ahmaad Rorie combined for 29 points in the second half after each going scoreless in the first to provide points at key moments for the Griz down the stretch.
Coming into the game, Oguine had only made two three-pointers all season long. In the second half against EWU, he went 4-5 from behind the arc for a total of 17 points, the fifth game he’s posted double-digits scoring this year.
Walter Wright led the Griz in scoring, however, bouncing back in a big way after a quiet game against Idaho for 19 points, five of which came from the line.
His two biggest free throws of the night came with 52 seconds on the clock and the Griz trailing by one, 59-58. Wright collected a foul from EWU’s Sir Washington while driving the lane and hit both from the charity stripe to put the Griz up for good 60-59, redeeming himself from a missed opportunity to beat Weber State on free throws one week previous.
As the seconds ticked away, Rorie and Oguine each added a pair of free throws and the Grizzly defense kept EWU’s hot hand Bogdan Bliznyuk, who had a game-high 21 points, from scoring on two clutch three-point attempts, leading to the Griz win.
“The biggest thing is resilience,” said DeCuire after the contest. “We did a good job of paying attention to details, and we handled our adjustments very well. Down the stretch, we rebounded the ball and made free throws, and that’s where we win.”
In addition to free throws, rebounds were indeed another key to the Grizzly victory, with UM winning the battle of the boards 36-34 and Oguine pulling down two of his six rebounds in the last minute to secure the Griz win.
“It means that this team is growing up. We’ve struggled to finish games, and we took a couple of shots I didn’t like, but we were in attack mode the whole game. We got stops when we needed to get them, we made free throws and got a couple of big shots.
Montana is now 66-41 all time over the Eagles, 25-10 since the 2000-01 season and 10-5 in Cheney in same time timeframe.
The opening 10 minutes of the contest were defined by streaks for both teams, during which the Griz shot 35 percent from the floor. Eastern ran out to a 7-0 lead when the Griz went 0-5 to start, but UM then battled back to take their first lead of the game with eight-straight points, sparked by a pair of jumpers from Wright.
The Eagles then went on another 6-0 run to go up 14-8 and the Griz played catch up for the rest of the period, eventually tying the game at 23 just before halftime when Brandon Gfeller was fouled behind the arc and went 1-of-3 from the line.
The final say of the half went to the Eagles, however, when Ty Gibson hit a three-pointer at the buzzer (that was later ruled a two-pointer) that made it a 25-23 game, and the home team took the momentum into the locker room.
Before Gibson’s jump shot at the bell, the Eagles had only made one shot in over six minutes of play to close out the opening half, as they went to the break shooting just 38 percent from the floor. The Griz weren’t fairing much better, however, shooting just over 39 percent in the half.
Both teams suffered a rash of turnovers in the first half too, giving the ball away six times each, an uncharacteristic streak for the Griz, having only given up seven turnovers in the previous two games combined.
Oguine stole whatever momentum EWU took into the halftime break, however, hitting a pair of three-pointers from the wing to force an EWU timeout as the Griz took a 31-27 lead after less than two minutes of action.
Wright got the Grizzlies going later in the second half hitting a jumper in the paint that snapped a nearly six-minute scoring drought, yet still gave the Griz a 41-40 lead as the defense continued to define the game.
EWU then went on another hot streak, draining 5-of-7 from the field to take a 51-45 lead with eight minutes to play.
But a pair of jumpers from Wright and two more three-pointers from Rorie and Oguine pulled the Griz back in it, and Oguine gave UM the lead with a layup and to make it 56-55.
After another lead change, the free throws started flowing for the Griz and nine shots later Montana was leaving Reese Court with the 65-59 win.
UM now returns home for a pair of league games against the surging Northern Colorado Bears on Jan. 12, and the team Big Sky coaches selected ahead of UM at No. 3 in the preseason poll, North Dakota on Jan. 14 at Dahlberg Arena.