By ERIC TABER
The Montana Grizzlies’ defense shut down the potent attack of North Dakota, holding the Fighting Hawks to 27 points below their season average with a convincing 71-46 victory at Dahlberg Arena on Thursday night.
After falling behind 11-5 in the opening six minutes of the ballgame, the Griz went on a 51-17 run to bury the visitors, thanks to a game-high 18 points from Walter Wright, and a player of the game performance from Martin Breunig, who finished with his twelfth double-double of the year at 17 points and 12 rebounds.
The win puts the Griz at 19-9 on the season, and 14-3 in Big Sky play, while the Hawks fall to 15-13 (10-7 BSC). With Weber State losing 62-58 to Idaho on Thursday, the Griz are now in with a chance to play for at least a share of the Big Sky regular season title on Saturday as they host Northern Colorado in Missoula.
A Montana win over UNC, and a Weber loss at Eastern Washington (who fell to Idaho State on Thursday), would see the Griz claim the outright Big Sky regular season title.
“Defense won that game for us tonight,” said Montana head coach Travis DeCuire.
“We went with a little speed tonight, and got after ’em. I thought we did a better job of containing penetration, and when they did get to the paint, the bigs rotated over. We probably attempted about 12 – 13 charges, and took, I think, six, and that was the difference defensively for us.”
Mario Dunn got his fist start of the season and Jack Lopez got his ninth start, giving the Griz the speedy lineup Coach DeCuire was looking for in order to put pressure on one of the Big Sky’s most prolific scorers, UND’s Quinton Hooker, who came into the game averaging 21.3 points per game in conference play, but was allowed only four points by the UM defense.
“We played well offensively too, but our guards did a really good job of keeping both their guards out of the paint, and forcing them to shoot contested jump shots,” added DeCuire.
The Griz forced 18 turnovers, leading to 15 points for UM. Eight of North Dakota’s turnovers came directly from guard Geno Crandall, who went 1-9 shooting on the evening.
All told, the Grizzlies held the Fighting Hawks to 29 percent from the field, and 23 percent from behind the arc.
On the offensive side of the ball, Breunig needed just six more points to move from No. 27 up to No. 24 on Montana’s all-time scoring list, which he managed in the first 10 minutes of the game on an ally-oop dunk from Wright.
Breunig now has 1,059 points in his two years as Grizzly, moving him past Roger Fasting on the all-time list. He’s now 12 points shy of moving into No. 23 ahead of Scott Zanon, and just 13 points shy of passing Craig Zanon at No. 22 with 1,071 career points.
Breunig is one of only two players in UM history to score over 1,000 points in just two years in maroon and silver.
The senior from Leverkusen, Germany, posted nearly a mirror image first half against UND as he did when the two teams met in Grand Forks back in January.
At UND, Breunig had 14 points in the first half. In Missoula, he matched that 14 and added a rebound, pulling down seven of his 12 boards in the first half alone.
Dunn made the most of his first start of the season, and showed why Coach DeCuire relies on the junior for leadership, setting the tone for UM in the opening minutes of the game.
Two minutes into the game, Dunn worked his way underneath the basket, but was blocked going up for a reverse layup. Not happy with the result, he sprinted down court and immediately picked the pocked of the UND ball carrier, turned around, sprinted back down court and nailed a jumper to make good on the blocked shot from the previous possession. Fans might call that the “Mr. Hustle” play of the night.
After that, the Fighting Hawks built a six point lead before UM took over, going on a 21-5 run midway through the first half that made up much of UM’s 51-17 run.
UND only managed two points in the first 10 minutes of the second half, as the Griz went on another run of 18-2 to start the second period, and never looked back.
The Grizzlies’ largest lead of the night came with 2:25 left to play, when UM went up by 29 on an and-1 layup from Riley Bradshaw to close out the scoring for the home team.
The Griz counted three players in double figures against UND. Michael Oguine continued his unbelievable form for a true freshman, netting 12 points on the night. Overall UM shot 40 percent from the field, making 24 of their 60 attempts.
Montana returns to the friendly confines of Dahlberg Arena on Saturday, where they have suffered just a single loss all season with a 12-1 home record. Northern Colorado pays a visit to Missoula after falling to Montana State 81-63 in Bozeman on Thursday.
The Griz defeated the Bears in Colorado 73-66 back in January.
Tipoff for the Montana/Northern Colorado game is set for 2 p.m. due to the Montana state A high school tournament happening at the Adams Center.