MISSOULA – And now, the real fun begins.
The Montana men’s basketball team starts its quest for a repeat on Thursday when it opens the Big Sky Conference tournament as the top seed.
Their first opponent is a very familiar one, too. UM (23-8) will take on Sacramento State (15-15) at noon on Thursday, just five days after the Grizzlies topped the Hornets 86-68 in Sacramento to win the regular-season title. Sac State defeated Northern Arizona 72-60 on Wednesday in the opening round of the tournament in Boise, Idaho.
Both of those teams the Griz saw over the last two weeks. The familiarity is there, and some small adjustments need to be made, but the goal is simple: win three games and return to the NCAA Tournament for the 12th time in school history.
“At this point, you’re pretty much just straightforward,” Montana coach Travis DeCuire said. “You can’t change too much. They’ll try to take away what we got, and we’ll take away what they got.”
When it comes to Sac State, the Hornets kept the most recent game close throughout the first half and briefly led towards the end of the period. But after the Hornets grabbed a 51-50 lead four minutes into the second quarter, Montana came alive on both sides of the ball, going on a 17-2 run and never looking back. Five different Grizzlies scored in double digits that night, and sophomore Timmy Falls poured in a career-night.
DeCuire noted that Sac State got some high-percentage shots early, but once the Griz clamped down, they were able to take control.
“If we can defend the way we did in the second half but at the beginning, I think we’ll be in good shape,” DeCuire said.
Montana swept the regular-season series with Sac State, winning 87-56 on Jan. 3 in Missoula.
Now that postseason play is here, DeCuire is trying to become the third coach in school history to take the Grizzlies to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances. Only Wayne Tinkle (2012 and 2013) and Larry Krystkowiak (2005 and 2006) have done that. Tinkle’s 2012 and 2013 teams are the last teams in the Big Sky to accomplish that mark.
Only three coaches – Tinkle, Krystkowiak and Blaine Taylor – have guided the Grizzlies to multiple NCAA Tournament appearances at all.
“This is the time we wait for all year. This is when it gets fun,” senior Bobby Moorehead said. “It’s just a fun ride and just have to grind it out. Whoever grinds it out the best is going to be the champion.
“It’s exciting. I’m ready for it. I love this time of year.”
And despite a couple of losses down the stretch to Northern Colorado and Portland State, along with an injury to redshirt senior and starting big man Jamar Akoh against Idaho on Feb. 7 that has kept him sidelined since, DeCuire likes where the team is at after rebounding with Saturday’s win.
“You just want to find a rhythm,” DeCuire said. “We’re going into this with a lot of confidence. We’ve been here and won this before. We’ve been in the finals three out of the previous four years. Our confidence is the most important thing, and right now, I think it’s at a high level.”
Montana understands that no win in this tournament comes easy. Just look at last year. Montana entered the tournament in the same spot as the No. 1 seed, but opened with a close game against North Dakota and trailed UNC by six with a minute to play in the semifinals. The Griz toughed out a win in overtime against the Bears then they trailed Eastern Washington by 11 at halftime of the title game before bouncing back to win.
“It gives you confidence knowing that you’re never really out of a game,” Moorehead said about experiencing those comebacks. “That just shows that no matter, you have a chance. Every team in this conference can give us problems. We can’t just go in saying we’re the No. 1 seed and this is going to be easy because it’s not. Everybody is playing their best basketball right now. It’s what March is all about.”
“We know no game is going to be easy,” redshirt senior Ahmaad Rorie added. “We know we just have to focus on ourselves and come out and respect our opponent and I think we’ll be fine.
“Three games and we’re the champs so that’s kind of how we look at it. Have to take it one game at a time.”