CHENEY, Wash. -- If Travis DeCuire was looking to hand out game balls following Montana’s 65-59 men’s basketball win over Eastern Washington on Saturday, the Griz coach had a lot of directions he could have gone.
Senior guard Walter Wright, fresh off perhaps his worst game in his brief career as a Griz, came off the bench to get Montana’s moribund offense moving in the first half and finished with a team-high 19 points.
Sophomore guard Michael Oguine, who came into the game 2 for 11 from 3-point range, was 4 for 5 from distance and added a season-best 17 points.
Montana’s leading scorer, sophomore guard Ahmaad Rorie, was held scoreless in the first half, but answered with 12 second-half points.
But DeCuire’s choice was junior center Fabijan Krslovic, with an assist to athletic trainer Justin Hunt. You need to look beyond Krslovic’s four points and six rebounds to get the true measure of his worth.
The 6-foot-8 Aussie was tasked first with defending Eastern center Jacob Wiley, who finished with 10 points, 15 fewer than he scored in a win over Montana State on Thursday. But late in the game, Krslovic was switched over to Bogdan Bliznyuk, Eastern’s leading scorer who had hurt the Griz with drives to the rim all game. Bliznyuk scored just two of his 21 points after Krslovic assumed the defensive duties.
“Fab won a game like this for us two years ago when they had Venky Jois,” DeCuire said of the former Eastern post player. “We knew they were going to go to Jois on the last possession and we couldn’t help because they had four shooters in the game. Fab, as a freshman, we were talking about where we were going to bring help and he said, ‘Coach, don’t bring any help. I’ve got it.’ And he got the stop on that last possession to win the game. I remembered that.
“Fab is good at containing drivers and guys like that. I didn’t want to go to it too early in the game because I knew Fab has a tendency to pick up fouls. When he only had one foul halfway through the second half, that’s when we made the switch and that really won the game for us.”
But Krslovic might not have even been on the floor if not for Hunt. Krslovic was fouled hard from behind in Montana’s win over Idaho on Thursday and landed on his right wrist. It was heavily taped on Saturday.
“Justin Hunt is the MVP of the game because he got Fab back on the floor for us today,” DeCuire said. “We expected to not have him.”
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Eastern led 25-23 after an ugly first half, stretched its lead to as many as six on the strength of a pair of 3-pointers by reserve Jesse Hunt, and still led 59-58 with 59 seconds to play.
The Griz took the lead on a pair of free throws by Wright, then limited Eastern to an errant 3-point attempt by Bliznyuk. Rorie then hit a pair of freebies to give the Griz a 62-59 lead with 22.5 seconds remaining. Felix Von Hofe missed another 3-point attempt for the Eagles that was followed by two free throws by Oguine that extended the lead to 64-59 with 9.8 seconds to play. The Griz added one more freebie when Eastern coach Jim Hayford was called for a technical with 2.6 seconds left.
“It was a great game, a war between two good teams,” Hayford said. “I’m really proud of my guys. We’ve tried to build our program so that we can compete with Montana. Montana and Weber are the class of the league and we want to be up there in that conversation.”
Wright credited senior guard Mario Dunn with helping him get over Thursday’s dismal performance in which Wright was held scoreless.
“Mario, one of my roommates, said shake that game off,” Wright said. “A lot of my teammates stood by me. Trav said after the game everybody’s not going to have a good game every night.”
Two of Oguine’s threes were back-to-back early in the second half and gave the Griz their largest lead at 31-25. His third halted a 7-0 Eastern run and his fourth put Montana back on top 54-53 with 4:31 to play.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Oguine, who missed the first six games of the season with a broken shooting hand. “Being out for so long -- two months -- without being able to get shots up with the broken hand, it took kind of a long time for my 3-point range to get back. Coach (Chris) Cobb has really been working with me a lot, trying to get my rhythm back and today they were just falling.”
The Griz became the first team to sweep the Idaho-Eastern Washington road trip since the Vandals rejoined the league in the 2014-15 season. It helped atone for the Grizzlies’ home loss to preseason favorite Weber State in the first week of the league season.
“If you’re going to compete for championships you have to get road sweeps,” DeCuire said. “If you’re good, you have to get the ones no one else can get. I’m not saying anyone can’t sweep this trip, but it’s going to be hard. For us to get it so early in the conference race is great. We have to go home and hold down the fort again.”