By ERIC TABER | Photos By WILLIAM MUNOZ
On the home stretch of one of the toughest nonconference schedules in program history, the Montana Grizzlies were looking to perhaps vent a little frustration in its final outing before Big Sky Conference play starts on New Years Eve.
Not frustration over the team record (the Griz do have a better record than last season heading into conference play at 5-6), but perhaps frustration that the team hadn’t consistently found the game it knew it could play this year.
The Griz found that game in a big way on Tuesday afternoon in Dahlberg Arena with an authoritative 75-43 victory over Montana-Western (7-7) to cap the nonconference season, and vent any perceived pent up frustrations.
“It’s a good way to set the tone going into conference. That’s what Grizzly basketball is supposed to look like for us,” said Montana head coach Travis DeCuire in his post game radio interview.
“We had a heart to heart yesterday about playing together and playing the right way. There’ve been some growing pains for us, some new faces, young faces. We’re going to figure this thing out sooner than later and hopefully tonight was an example of where we’re heading.”
Montana used a balanced and aggressive attack to defeat the Bulldogs, with 10 players registering in the scoring column, adding 32 points off the bench.
Martin Breunig once again led all scorers and outrebounded everyone on the court with 19 points and eight rebounds, just two boards shy of his fourth double-double of the season.
Junior guard Jack Lopez got his first career start, and had a career-high day, going 4-9 from the field and draining a three pointer in the opening minutes for a total of 10 points.
The Griz also welcomed back junior guard Mario Dunn, who saw his first minutes of the season after recovering from wrist surgery in the off season. Dunn made an immediate impact in helping the Griz move the ball to the open shooter, dishing out five assists, a steal and a pair of rebounds.
Walter Wright was also lethal with ball in hand, tallying eight assists, a number that could have been much higher had the recipient of his passes not been fouled shooting. Wright also picked up three steals, four rebounds and four points.
With Dunn healthy, and Wright succeeding in finding the open shooters, the Grizzlies’ three-guard lineup option is looking dangerous.
“Speed kills,” added Coach DeCuire. “We just haven’t had the ability to go to that (three-guard set), which I thought we needed in some of the games we scheduled.”
All told, the Griz shot nearly 53 percent from the floor, and over 61 percent in the first half as UM ran out to a 43-20 lead at the break.
On the other side of the ball, the Montana defense held Montana-Western to just over 26 percent shooting on the day, and 25 percent in the second half, after the game was in hand for the Grizzlies and Coach DeCuire was able to rotate in different combinations.
“We kept playing defense. They made some tough shots, but our focus was to continue to play defense, move the ball and share the ball. I think we did a good job of sustaining that, which allowed us to give good minutes to some of the younger guys.”
Martin Breunig made a statement about the kind of day he wanted to have, throwing down a dunk on an assist from Fabijan Krslovic to open the scoring for Montana in the first minute of the game.
The Griz went on 10-0 run to start the contest, with Jack Lopez and Brandon Gfeller knocking down a pair of threes, and Lopez putting down a big dunk of his own.
The high flying Griz kept the pressure up in transition throughout the first half, taking advantage of fast break opportunities from eight Bulldog turnovers to roll out to a 23 point halftime lead, highlighted by six big dunks from UM.
The second half was more of the same for the Griz, shooting 44 percent from the field, with four freshmen chiming in with a total of 21 points in the period.
Bobby Moorehead led all freshmen in scoring with nine in the game, wile the Grizzlies other true freshman Michael Oguine was right there with eight.
Redshirt freshmen Bryden Boehning added four points and grabbed six rebounds in just 12 minutes on the court, while the Grizzlies’ other redshirt freshmen Gavin DeJong had his best outing for UM with six quick points in the last three minutes of the game.
The contest finished with the Griz scoring 14 points off turnovers, 10 of which were fast break points.
The long and demanding 11-game nonconference schedule comes to a close with the Grizzlies sitting at 5-6, and undefeated in Dahlberg Arena. From here on out, each game counts toward the Montana defending its Big Sky regular season championship.
That title defense gets underway with one of the conference’s tougher road swings at Northern Arizona on Dec. 31, then moving to Cedar City, Utah on Jan. 2 to face Southern Utah. The Lumberjacks and Thunder Birds are currently sitting at the bottom of the Big Sky table at 2-8, and 2-7, respectively.
The Griz will look to continue its unbeaten home record in conference play when Portland State comes to town on Jan 7, followed by Sacramento State on Jan. 9.
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