The promise of the new year has given way to a crisis of confidence for the Montana men’s basketball team.
A 5-1 start to Big Sky Conference play seems long ago after Idaho’s 85-77 overtime win over the Griz in front of 3,935 fans Saturday night at Dahlberg Arena.
Montana’s fourth straight loss dropped the Griz to 5-5 in league, 10-13 overall, good for only seventh place in the 12-team league. Idaho moved in front of the Griz at 5-4, 10-10. And things won’t get any easier when rival Montana State visits Missoula on Saturday riding a five-game winning streak.
Coupled with a loss to Eastern Washington on Thursday, the defeat marks the first time the Griz have lost back-to-back league games at home since 2007-08, and the four-game league losing streak is the longest since the 2003-04 season.
“There’s no question the difference in the ball game is our mistakes,” Griz coach Travis DeCuire said. “We had breakdowns on both sides of the ball, whether it was poor offense that led to turnovers, shot selection on offense that led to transition. And then the biggest thing is we had some breakdowns defensively where there were some situations that we handle certain ways and we just weren’t doing that. I kept reminding them in timeouts, ‘This is how we’re guarding that, this is how we’re guarding that.’ We never did it.”
Leading scorers Ahmaad Rorie and Walter Wright returned to the floor after being held out of Thursday’s loss to Eastern. And for the first half, the Griz looked like the team that won five of its first six league games.
Behind 12 first-half points from Michael Oguine, the Griz lead reached 32-21 on a trey by the sophomore guard, who led the Griz with 25 points.
The Vandals trimmed that to 37-32 on a hook shot by Arkadiy Mkrtychyan, but Wright answered with a 3-pointer to give the Griz a 40-32 lead at the break.
“I was excited about where we were at,” DeCuire said. “We had some mistakes that we made, but they were mistakes you could fix. And we discussed them at halftime, we discussed them in the first time out, then we came out and made the same mistakes and made more -- like we added mistakes.”
A 3-pointer by Jack Lopez to begin the second half extended the lead to 43-32, but that was the high-water mark for the Griz.
Behind the 28 points of Victor Sanders, the Vandals kept chipping away at their deficit until Nate Sherwood’s free throws gave Idaho a 59-58 lead with 6:13 to play in regulation. Sanders followed with a trey to make it 62-58.
“At the end of the day I think they decided in the second half at a point that, ‘You know what, we’re going to be tougher than them,’” DeCuire said. “And they out-toughed us.”
The Griz then shifted into catch-up mode and finally drew even when Oguine stripped Sanders and went the other way for a layup to tie the game at 68-68 with 16.2 seconds to play. He was fouled on the play, but missed the potential go-ahead freebie. Sanders missed at the other end to send the game to overtime.
“I thought our guys just beared down and fought,” said Idaho coach Don Verlin. “In the second half from about the 15-minute mark to about the 5-minute mark we were as good defensively as we were all year.”
Pat Ingram started the 5-minute extra session with a 3-pointer, then came up with a steal that led to a bucket by Sanders and a five-point Idaho lead, 73-68.
The Griz drew within one twice, the last time at 77-76 on a three-point play by Oguine with 1:19 to play. But Sanders scored the next four points as the Vandals pulled away.
The Vandals owned a 44-38 edge on the boards, scored 21 points off of Montana’s 14 turnovers and scored 11 more on second-chance shots.
“That’s always going to be their strength in this conference because they have a long list of guys at the four and the five, so they have fouls to give,” DeCuire said. “They have no problem with playing any of them, so those guys can be aggressive and climb your back, climb your back. ... You just can’t keep calling it. Eventually they score on enough of them to wear us down. And even the ones they didn’t score on, we picked up fouls.”
DeCuire said the one-game suspension of Rorie and Wright was not a distraction for the team.
“We had a great meeting yesterday and a great one today,” DeCuire said. “When you have adversity and you’re not playing good basketball, all your weaknesses come out, whether it’s your skill set, or your personality -- even mine. Those things happen. That’s part of playing sports.
“Our issue is confidence down the stretch and believing in each other. I’ve got to have enough confidence in you to make a shot, to give you the ball and I have to have enough confidence in myself and everyone else to say this is how we’re defending something a certain way and not go rogue and do it your way. Right now that’s costing us a little bit. I don’t know that it’s the other stuff. We’re young, we have some young guys on the floor that I don’t know if they’re 100 percent confident in the way we defend certain things.”