By ERIC TABER
Splitting road trips is not something the Montana Grizzlies have become accustomed to in Big Sky Conference play this season, but after dropping the first road game of the season last week at Sacramento State, the Grizzlies (14-8, 9-2 BSC) rebounded to produce a come from behind win at Portland State on the back of Martin Breunig‘s career-high 32 points.
The Griz return home to Dahlberg Arena this week for the team’s longest home stand of the year as Southern Utah (4-17, 2-9 BSC) and Northern Arizona (4-18, 2-9 BSC) pay a visit to the Garden City on Thursday (Feb. 11) and Saturday (Feb. 13), respectively, before hosing Montana State a week later (Feb. 20).
With last week’s win at Portland State, and Weber State’s loss at North Dakota, the Grizzlies climb back into first place on the Big Sky conference table. With three key home games on the horizon, and five of the Grizzlies’ last seven games in Missoula, the Griz are set to make their final push toward a second-straight regular season conference championship.
THE HOME STAND: Though Southern Utah and Northern Arizona sit at the bottom of the league table, perhaps no two teams personify the parity of the Big Sky Conference better than the Thunderbirds and Lumberjacks.
Southern Utah’s two Big Sky wins have come against Idaho (in Moscow), the only team to defeat Montana at home this year, and Montana State, a team that took the Griz to the wire in Bozeman.
It took two overtime periods for the Griz to knock off NAU in Flagstaff in UM’s league opener, and the Lumberjacks have also notched a win over Idaho.
COVERAGE: Fans can watch the game live via web stream free of charge at watchbigsky.com, and tune in to hear the radio broadcast statewide on the Montana Radio Network, or via web stream at gogriz.com. For folks that like to follow the numbers, live stats are available at gogriz.com, and updates are available on twitter @UMGRIZZLIES_BB.
FUN STUFF: The first 100 students through the gates at Thursday’s Southern Utah game will pick up a FREE Qdoba Burrito, and will have the chance to win cash prizes just for showing up. Saturday’s game against NAU is Lil’ Griz Dance Day.
SERIES HISTORY: The Griz lead the all-time series with Southern Utah 11-5, and lead the all-time series against NAU 64-32.
LAST TIME THEY MET: Montana picked up a road sweep on its first conference road trip of the year at Southern Utah back on January 2nd, posting a 17 point victory over the T-birds in Cedar City.
The Griz shot a hot 53 percent from the floor that night led by 45 points scored between Martin Breunig and Brandon Gfeller.
That win came on the back of a double-overtime thriller in Flagstaff on New Year’s Eve, when the Griz knocked off NAU thanks to a school record 18 three-pointers. Eight of those treys came from the hot hand of Brandon Gfeller, who was just one shy of tying the UM record for most individual threes in a game. After two overtime periods, the Griz pulled away with the 90-84 victory.
Fans will also remember the UM/NAU matchup from the Big Sky tournament in 2015, when the Griz advanced to the tourney championship game with a fiery 61-59 win in front of a boisterous crowd at Dahlberg Arena.
GRIZ TRACKS: Defense continues to be the name of the game for the Grizzlies, and the No. 1 key to victory during this week’s home stand. UM boasts the league’s third-best scoring defense, allowing just over 68 points per game out of its opponents.
The Griz D has been especially strong on the perimeter, allowing a league-low .310 from behind the arc. In fact, the Grizzlies’ three-point defense is the 33rd-best in the nation, and the only Big Sky team to be ranked in the top-50 in that category.
UM is looking to clamp down the D even further this week however. In the last three halves of play, the Griz have allowed its opponents to shoot 60 percent or more from the floor, opposed to their season average of 43 percent.
continues to be one of the most dominant scorers in Montana history, posting a new career high of 32 points against Portland State last week, upping his season average to 19.1 points per game, making him the league’s second leading scorer with 421 points this year.
He’s now put down 955 points in his two-year career as a Griz, just 45 shy of becoming the 29th member of Montana’s 1,000 point club, a mark he could easily hit this week.
If Breunig continues to score 19.1 per game over UM’s final seven games, he’ll finish as Montana’s 21’s highest scorer ever, with 1,089 career points.
SCOUTING THE THUNDERBIRDS: The T-birds will come to Missoula hungry, coming off a pair of big home losses last week at the hands of Idaho (68-44) and Eastern Washington (81-67).
Southern Utah’s James Mcgee is the leading scorer headed into the weekend, averaging 12.2 PPG, followed closely by Trey Kennedy on 11.9 PPG and Travon Langston on 11.1 PPG.
SCOUTING THE LUMBERJACKS: Coach Jack Murphy’s ‘Jacks boast one of the league’s most dangerous scorers in Kris Yanku, who is averaging 14.5 PPG, and dishing out 4.7 assists per game, the third-most in the Big Sky.
Yanku, a Big Sky preseason all-conference selection, is fifth in career active leaders in the Big Sky in scoring, putting down 1,138 points since 2013. He has also made the most free throws of any current player in the league.