By ERIC TABER
As second half comeback was not enough to overcome a cold shooting performance by the Montana Grizzlies, as the Idaho Vandals snapped UM’s seven-game win streak with a physical 63-58 victory in Missoula.
The Grizzlies drop their first Big Sky Conference game of the season, moving to 11-7 overall and 6-1 in league play, while the Vandals improve to 12-7 on the year, and 4-2 in the Big Sky.
After a back-and-forth open to the game where the lead changed five times in the first five minutes, the Griz were able to jump out to a 15-8 lead paced by a pair of three-pointers from Brandon Gfeller.
Defense took control partway through the period though, and both teams went scoreless over the next four minutes of play.
The scoring faucet was shut off completely for the Griz with 1:35 seconds to play in the first half, after Jack Lopez drained a three to put Montana up 23-20. Walter Wright then added a free thrown to give the Griz the 24-22 halftime lead.
UM went ice cold to star the second half, not scoring another point from the field until seven minutes into period. Martin Breunig hit a pair of free throws during the 8:35 dry spell for the Griz, but the Vandals went on a run, jumping out to a 38-26 lead before Bobby Moorehead stopped the bleeding by hitting a three to make it 38-29 with 13 minutes to play.
Breunig posted his eighth double-double of the year with 20 points and 10 rebounds, but 16 of those points came in the second half when Idaho had already built a 15 point lead with 10:46 to play.
The Griz rallied behind Breunig’s second half surge, as the senior forward scored 12 of Montana’s last 21 points of the night. Brandon Gfeller hit a three to close Idaho’s lead to just two points at 58-60 with 22-seconds left to play, but the effort was too-little, too-late as Idaho walked away with it’s first victory in Missoula since 1999.
Heading into the game, the Grizzlies had found a way to grind out wins, riding a six-game Big Sky win streak. But a physical defensive effort from Idaho and 32 percent shooting by the Griz kept UM from finding the way through.
“You don’t want to play with fire too much, and we got burnt tonight,” said Montana head coach Travis DeCuire after the game. “We’re just not shooting the ball well, and I think we’re settling for low percentage shots. There’s no reason we should take 30 three-pointers. Even if the ball’s going in the hoop, that’s just way too many.”
All told, Montana was 18-56 from the field, and 9-30 from behind the three-point line. The Griz have only shot more three pointers in one game this season whey they went 18-33 in the double-overtime win at Northern Arizona.
Though the Grizzlies forced 20 turnovers from the Vandals, and took 10 steals, UM only converted 12 points off those turnovers, missing several opportunities at gimmies down low with only 10 points in the paint all night. Rebounding factored in to the Griz loss as well, losing the battle of the glass 39-27.
“You can’t win at this level missing layups, and it just caught up with us. Too many shots in the paint didn’t go in for us, and now you’re forced to fire threes because you’re behind,” added Coach DeCurie. “We don’t play outside in we play inside out. That’s Grizzly basketball; we just didn’t play that way tonight.”
The Grizzlies are back in action at home on Saturday when the Eastern Washington Eagles pay a visit to Dahlberg Arena in a rematch of last year’s Big Sky Conference tournament championship game.
The Eagles suffered an 85-71 loss at the hands of Montana State on Thursday night, and enter Saturday’s game at 3-3 in the Big Sky.
Tipoff for the UM/EWU tussle is set for 7 p.m. with the annual GSA fan appreciation tailgate party getting underway in the EAG at 5 p.m.