By ERIC TABER
Survive and advance is the name of the game in postseason play, but the Montana Grizzlies did more than that. For them, it was thrive and advance, smothering Sacramento State with defense en route to a 70-53 win in the Big Sky Conference quarterfinal.
At 20-10 on the season (14-4 BSC), Montana head coach Travis DeCuire becomes the first coach in UM history to post two 20-win seasons in his first two years at the helm.
The Grizzlies now move on to face the Idaho Vandals in the tournament semifinal on Friday. Tipoff for the semi is set for 8:05 p.m. PT (9:05 MT) at the Reno Events Center.
Martin Breunig was once again dominant down low, posting a game-high 24 points on 10-18 shooting, 16 rebounds, three big blocked shots, and a pair of assists.
The Griz had three players score in double figures, with Walter Wright adding 12 points to go along with six dimes, and Mario Dunn coming off the bench to post a season high 10 points wile pulling down four rebounds.
Montana played the aggressor on both sides of the ball, shooting over 47 percent from the field, while holding the Hornets to 35 percent shooting on the defensive end, and avenging the Grizzlies’ loss in Sacramento on February 4.
“When we defend, and we scrap, and we play with intensity on the defensive side, it always carries over to the offense,” said Coach DeCuire at the post game press conference. “For us tonight, that was huge, and I think that was the difference in the game.”
A large portion of Montana’s game plan revolved around Breunig, UM’s first-team all-Big Sky senior forward, and his ability to control the post. That plan was well on its way to shutting down the Hornets when halftime rolled around, with UM jumping out to a 36-21 lead at the break.
“We wanted to set the tone and maintain it, and we knew establishing the paint was going to be huge on both sides of the ball. We didn’t want to allow them to dump it in the post and play, and we attacked the paint as much as possible off the dribble and off the post feeds,” added DeCuire.
Breunig dominated the first half of the game, nearly jumping out to his thirteenth double-double of the season before the break (a mark he would set early in the second half) with 16 points and eight rebounds.
“I’ve never played with a guy of his caliber,” said Wright after the game. “Martin is a great big, and I understand that, so once I get into the paint, I’m going to draw a lot of attention, and he has soft hands, he’s going to finish.”
The guard/forward duo worked together like a Swiss watch for the bulk of the contest, with Breunig throwing down a pair of big dunks on feeds from Wright.
The Grizzlies went to the locker rooms up 15 points at the break, and looked to have the game in hand. That was the same scenario on Feb. 4 when the Hornets stormed back to defeat the Griz after UM held a big halftime lead.
With that in mind, Sac State came out firing after the break, scoring on their first three possessions of the half, capped by a deep three-pointer from Justin Strings.
Jack Lopez put a stop to a potential repeat performance of the loss at Sacramento with a trey of his own to put the Griz lead back to 10, thwarting the only real challenge the Hornets posed all night.
Montana will play in the Big Sky conference semifinal for the sixth time in the last seven years on Friday. Fans can tune in to see the Griz take on the Vandals live via web stream at watchbigsky.com. The Grizzlies dropped the only meeting between the two old Big Sky foes 58-63 back on January 21 in Missoula.