Montana dug itself into a halftime hole and couldn’t get out, falling to Eastern Washington 78-71 at Reese Court in Cheney, Washington, in a rematch of last year’s Big Sky Conference men's basketball championship game.
The loss is the Grizzlies’ (10-6, 3-2) second in a row after falling to Portland State on Saturday.
“In all honesty, this is two games in a row where our opponent wanted it more than us,” Montana coach Travis DeCuire told KGVO after the game. “We don’t have a hard time getting up for the teams that have high expectations like the South Dakota States, the Arizonas; there’s a common respect when we look down at the other end and I don’t know that we’ve been giving these other teams the same respect which is why we get off to slow starts.
“You have to have respect for your opponent and you have to give them what you have no matter every night no matter who it is and what their record is, and I’m just not sure everybody is doing that right now.”
Montana appeared to put its shooting woes behind it with a hot start to Thursday’s contest. The Eagles canned the first basket of the game, a 3-pointer, before Montana went on an 11-0 run led by senior Ahmaad Rorie and junior Sayeed Pridgett, who scored the first nine points of that stretch.
Montana increased its lead to 28-17 with 4:28 to go, but the Grizzlies fell apart from there. EWU answered with a 15-1 run to head into halftime with a 32-28 lead and the Eagles never trailed again.
Rorie came out with an ally-oop dunk on a pass from senior Michael Oguine to begin the second half to make it a 42-41 deficit, but that was as close as UM got.
Senior Jamar Akoh, who averaged 20 points per game in the previous four conference games, ended Thursday’s game with eight points due to foul trouble. Akoh fouled EWU junior Mason Peatling 30 seconds into the second half on a three-point play. Then, 30 seconds later, Akoh picked up his fourth foul on a charge, forcing him to the bench and opening a hole in Montana’s interior defense.
“We had to play small and it’s unfortunate but we’ve been playing like that earlier in the year so it wasn’t like it was something we weren’t accustomed to,” DeCuire said. “I thought we made some good runs small because we spread the floor and played faster and got up the floor and we got good shots.”
EWU found ways to convert from there, grabbing a 10-point lead twice and never letting Montana regain the lead despite the Grizzlies getting within one possession multiple times.
“We were one stop away from stealing the game,” DeCuire said. “And we just couldn’t get the stop.”
As it did Saturday, 3-point shooting hurt UM once again against the Eagles. Montana finished 4 for 19 from beyond the arc. Montana shot 48.2 percent from the field and was able to get good looks against EWU’s zone, but it was unable to convert quite a few wide-open shots. DeCuire thought a lot of Thursday’s shots were forced.
“Tonight, a lot of those threes were late clock, desperation shots at the end because we weren’t getting good ball movement,” DeCuire said.
Oguine led Montana in scoring with 18 points while Rorie added 17 and Pridgett scored 16. Montana finished with 13 turnovers, 10 of which came in the first half.
Peatling led EWU in scoring with 17 as five Eagles scored in double figures on a team that shot 48 percent from the field and 52.9 percent from deep.
EWU improved to 4-12 and 2-3 with the win. Montana will next take on Northern Colorado on Saturday.
“I hit the panic meter in September,” DeCuire said. “Our sense of urgency individually and collectively is in question and it has been. It’s easy to come up with excuses. At some point in time, you have to look in that mirror and you have to make it happen and right now we have 15 guys that need to look in that mirror.”