By ERIC TABER | Photos By WILLIAM MUNOZ
A cold second half shooting against the visiting Northern Colorado Bears cost the Montana Grizzlies a share of the Big Sky Conference regular season championship, as UM dropped only its second home game of the season 72-78 on Saturday.
The Grizzlies (19-10, 14-4 BSC) went nearly 10 minutes without scoring a field goal early in the second half, turning an eight-point lead into a nine-point deficit that UM was unable to recover from.
With the Montana loss and Weber State beating Eastern Washington 79-77 on a game winning three-pointer from Joel Bolomboy, the Wildcats claim the outright Big Sky regular season championship.
The Grizzlies will take the No. 2 seed at the conference tournament in Reno, and will play the winner of the No. 7 versus No. 10 seed game. If the current conference standings hold at the end of play on Saturday, the No. 7 team would be Montana State, and No. 10 would be Sacramento State.
On senior day, Martin Breunig was rendered largely ineffective offensively by the Bears, being fouled 12 times, and only making two field goals in total on the day, yet still managing a double-double with 13 points and 13 rebounds.
Thanks to the foul barrage from UNC, the bulk of Breunig’s scoring came from eight points at the free throw line, and a rare three-pointer for the big man, his second this season and fourth of his career.
“We were too one-dimensional tonight. Our offensive players didn’t defend, and our defensive players couldn’t make shots. We’ve got to play both sides of the ball,” said Montana head coach Travis DeCuire.
“At the end of the day, they were more aggressive than us on both sides of the ball. They picked up loose balls, they got more deflections, and they were active. You’d have thought they were playing for a championship, not us.”
The Griz opened the game shooting lights-out from behind the arc, hitting four of their first five shots, all threes, to jump out to a 12-9 lead.
Walter Wright, who earned player of the game honors with 18 points and seven assists, sparked a 12-2 run for UM to build an 11 point lead for the home team with seven minutes to play before the break.
Northern Colorado’s Anthony Johnson got hot for the Bears, rattling off five points in the midst of a 13-4 run for UNC.
Junior Jack Lopez then stepped up for the Grizzlies, knocking down three-straight three-pointers for nine crucial points late in the half, and the Griz went into the locker rooms up 40-34.
Lopez put the second-best scoring performance of his career on the floor against UNC, going 5-8 from behind the arc for 15 points.
Lopez kept his hot hand going for the Griz early in the second half, hitting his fourth trey just 30 seconds into the period.
But after that shot, the Grizzly scoring went virtually dead, as UM didn’t score another point from the field until the 9:54 mark, when Wright drove the lane for a layup.
By the time Wright got scoring back underway, the Bears had already built up their nine-point lead, and despite another three-pointer from Lopez, the Griz couldn’t mount a comeback as UNC pulled off the upset win in Missoula.
With his 13 points, Breunig passed his point total of 534 points from last season. He now has 538 points this season, making this the ninth best single season in Montana history. He needs just two more points to surpass Larry Krystkowiak ‘s 1983/84 season total of 539.
The senior forward from Germany now has 1,072 career points, moving him into No. 22 on the all-time scoring list at Montana, and now trails Marc Glass at No. 21, who posted 1,091 in his career.
The Grizzlies will travel to Reno on Tuesday, in preparation for Thursday’s quarterfinal game at 5:35 p.m. PT/6:35 p.m. MT.
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