By ERIC TABER
The Montana Grizzlies had upset on the brain heading to Spokane to face the No. 17/20 Gonzaga Bulldogs in the Kennel on Tuesday, and sure enough, after 40 hard-fought minutes, the Griz (3-4) were in a position to hand the Zags (6-2) its second defeat at home in as many games.
However, as the game tying three-pointer from Brandon Gfeller hit the back of the rim at the final buzzer, the upset fell short, and Gonzaga snuck away from its home court with the 61-58 victory.
In a game where both teams saw plenty of open shots go missing, defense was the name of the game for the Griz, holding Gonzaga to its lowest points total of the season.
At the same time Griz held the Zags’ leading scorer, and preseason national Player of the Year, Kyle Wiltjer, to his second lowest points total of the season with 16. UM also held its second leading scorer, Domantas Sabonis to 16 points. For reference, Sabonis put 26 up against Northern Arizona earlier this season.
After posting only two points in the first half, Martin Breunig had his way with the Zags defense in the second half with a total of 20 points on the evening to lead all scorers.
Finding himself double teamed by the likes of Sabonis, Breunig, the preseason all-Big Sky forward, was able weave his way to the basket for 18 in the second half.
It was Breunig’s fourth outing in a row, and his fifth game this season posting 20 points or more, keeping on par with his conference-leading 20.7 points per game average.
While not one for moral victories, Montana head coach Travis DeCuire was able to take away a lot of positives from another strong performance for his young Griz charges.
“It’s one of those things where you go on the road, and you can’t wait for the whistle to go out and play. We thought our guys played a good enough game to win, we just didn’t come out with it. But holding this team to 61 points is huge,” said DeCuire.
“We came in, and our intent wasn’t just to show up, we came here to win. We did everything we could to put ourselves in that situation. We had a little slippage here and there down the stretch, but had them where we wanted them. We got shots when we wanted them, just couldn’t knock ‘em down.”
Early in the game, the Griz jumped out to an 8-7 lead heeding into the first media timeout on two powerful moves from Fabijan Krlsovic underneath the basket, and three turnovers from the Zags.
Krslovic put in all of his six points in the first half, giving the Griz the lead and taking advantage of the double teams the Zags were putting on Breunig.
Jack Lopez got in the action as well early in the game draining a three to extend the Griz lead to 11-9 just minutes later. Five of Lopez’s seven points also came in the first half.
The pace of the game slowed down midway through the first half with both teams cooling off shooting the ball. During the cold spell, the Griz went just 1-7 from the field, and suffered three turnovers over a four and a half minute stretch. The Zags were also shooting cold though at 32 percent, and was itself on a 2:33 scoring drought, but were then able to reclaim the lead.
Walter Wright, Bobbly Moorehead and Breunig each did their part to keep the Griz within striking distance over the next five minutes. Wright found the shoot he had been looking for with a deep three from the right side.
Breunig moved Sabonis around down low and showed why he has some of the best footwork in the league, and Bobby Moorehead found a seam on a drive to the hoop to bring the Griz within four at 20-24 with 3:20 left in the first half.
Montana found itself trailing by only by six points at the break, 29-23. The six-point lead for the Zags came all off free throws, as the Griz didn’t even make a trip to the charity stripe during the entire opening period.
Montana came out of the halftime break on fire. Martin Breunig scored the first seven points of the half, and the Griz held the Zags to just two points for the first seven minutes.
Walter Wright gave Montana its first lead of the second period, 33-31, with a big three that capped a 10-0 run for UM, and Gonzaga was forced to take a timeout with 16:30 to play. It was a lead the Griz would keep for nearly the next four minutes.
The Griz then went from red hot to ice cold, going on a scoring drought of its own for the next four minutes going 2-13 fro the field. The Bulldogs then pulled back into the lead and extended it to 50-44 with five minutes to play.
Walter Wright then showed no fear, driving the lane into to tall timbers of the Zags defense, netting a pair effortless looking lay-ins to close the gap to 50-48, and move the momentum back to the Montana side of the court.
Brandon Gfeller answered Wright with a three of his own, something he’d searched for all night, finishing the game 3-10 on three point attempts.
No stranger to big shots, Gfeller then hit another huge three just as Jack Lopez was fouled setting the screen, setting up a rare five-point play, and giving the Griz the 58-56 lead with less than a minute to play.
In the end, it was not to be as the Zags battled back, and Martin Breunig was swallowed up by Sabonis and the GU defense, going for what would have been the game-winning shot.
Gfeller had one last shot at glory, but his last second three wouldn’t go, and the upset opportunity fell just out of grasp for the Griz.
The Griz fall to 3-4 in the middle of one of the most demanding nonconference schedules in program history, but will take the confidence of a solid outing against a nationally ranked team opponent with them.
Montana will get another shot at an upset on Saturday when UM travels to Seattle to take on the Washington Huskies of the Pac-12. The Griz and Huskies game will air on the Pac-12 Network.