Ahmaad Rorie had some friendly words of advice for Griz teammate Fabijan Krslovic on Saturday night.
Paraphrased, it went something like, “Put the ball in the basket.”
Rorie and Krslovic both did that with enough frequency to lift Montana to a 76-70 win over North Dakota -- its fourth straight win and seventh in its last eight outings -- in a Big Sky Conference men’s basketball game at Dahlberg Arena.
The win left the Griz (5-1 in league, 10-9 overall) in sole possession of second place behind Weber State, which remained perfect in league games with a hard-fought home win over Eastern Washington on Saturday night. North Dakota is alone in fourth at 4-2, 9-7.
After a slow start, Rorie led the Griz with 20 points and Krslovic added a career-best 16 points to go with 10 rebounds. Jack Lopez and Walter Wright added 13 points apiece and Michael Oguine notched a career high with 11 boards.
Montana needed all it could muster to offset the 28 points from UND sophomore guard Geno Crandall, who usually plays second fiddle to senior guard and preseason MVP Quinton Hooker. Hooker finished with just eight points on 4-for-11 shooting.
Krslovic played just 7 minutes in the first half because of foul trouble, but scored eight of his points while the Griz turned a 32-31 halftime advantage into a 51-43 lead midway through the second half. He did much of his damage while giving away several inches to UND posts Carson Shanks and Drick Bernstine.
“I’m like, ‘Fab, come on. When I throw you the ball go score,’” Rorie said. “’I’m not throwing you the ball to look back out. When I throw you the ball go get a bucket. I trust you, just like you trust me to make good decisions.’ I’m proud of Fab. He’s starting to get it going.”
The Fighting Hawks were playing to deny Montana on the perimeter, from where the Griz made 15 3-pointers in a win over Northern Colorado on Thursday.
“I think they thought our guards would do a lot of damage, so they had a lot of focus on them,” Krslovic said. “Credit to our guards, they’ve been incredible all year. It’s kind of hard to take away both, so when I saw they were really focusing on them the coaches and the guys told me to be aggressive, go at them and do what I do.”
“He was huge because they were out denying,” Montana coach Travis DeCuire said. “Once we figured out how to space them and picked a couple of matchups that made sense, it was very effective.”
Wright scored seven of his points in a 90-second stretch that gave the Griz their largest lead of the game at 58-48 with 9:32 to play.
But the Fighting Hawks played true to their name, battling back with a four-point play by Corey Baldwin and a put-back by Shanks to draw within 66-65 with 2:15 remaining.
A three-point play by Rorie gave the Griz breathing room at 69-65 and two empty possessions by UND allowed Montana to stretch the lead to 71-65 on a 17-foot jumper by Rorie. Hooker traveled for UND’s 15th turnover of the game to give Rorie that opportunity.
“Value the basketball, which we didn’t, especially in the first half,” UND coach Brian Jones said of the Hawks’ game plan. “Eleven (first-half) turnovers -- that’s just not who we’ve been and we allowed that to affect our offense. When we didn’t turn it over we did some nice things. … They made some timely shots down the stretch and we didn’t have great execution ourselves down the stretch.”
Montana made 5 of 6 free throws in the final 30 seconds to seal the victory.
Crandall finished 10 for 13 from the field and 6 of 8 from the line for his 28 points before fouling out with 2:36 to play. Most of his buckets came from point-blank range.
“You go into this game hoping that if you can slow one of them down you have a chance,” DeCuire said of Crandall and Hooker. “We were able to shut one down and the other got going and probably had his best game of the season. He made some tough shots; his speed was an issue. We figured out later what we wanted to do on the ball screens and we slowed him down. Fortunately we were able to put some pressure on his defense and that cost him.”
Saturday’s game was the only time the Griz will face North Dakota during the regular season, giving the Griz a tie-breaker edge over a team that figures to be in the hunt all season.
“It would be huge to have that tie-breaker if we need it,” DeCuire said. “Hopefully it doesn’t come down to that. It’s big, it’s like two wins.”
NOTES: Lopez, a senior, was honored before the game so that his parents could be there for his “senior night.” Lopez is from Bankstown, Australia. It was the first time his parents were able to be in Missoula for one of his games. … Senior guard Mario Dunn dressed, but did not play for the fourth straight game. He is nursing a bad wrist. … The Griz had just seven turnovers.