The Mystery of Big Sky Conference Hoops

By BILL SCHWANKE

When I was the Voice of the Grizzlies on radio all those years I more often than not would see an official call something that seemed totally wrong or at best out of place, and would label it “a mystery call.”

This last weekend’s Griz games against Eastern Washington and Portland State were perhaps the most mystifying I’ve ever seen.

I’ve been rolling this thought around in my mind – not for months, but for years now – that perhaps there is a not-so-hidden agenda against Montana in the Big Sky Conference, particularly in football and basketball. Thursday night and last night that feeling was rattling, not rolling, around.

You don’t like conspiracy theories? Neither do I. But just think about it.

Let’s go through it game by game, shall we?

GRIZ MANHANDLED, STILL WHIP EASTERN 66-47

The keys to this win for Montana were poise and composure.

In a game featuring some of the most “interesting” officiating I’ve seen – even for the Big Sky Conference – the Grizzlies managed to ignore the steady hammering Eastern Washington dealt out all game long at Dahlberg Arena Thursday night to score a dominating victory over the visitors.

Brian Qvale must be used to getting mugged underneath. Even though the pounding administered on BQ down low accounted for a lower-than-usual field goal percentage the big guy still came up with a double-double of 12 points and 13 rebounds and moved himself into second place all-time at UM and in the Big Sky Conference in blocked shots.

More significant was his overall defensive presence. Many an Eastern shot was affected by that presence, and the frustration carried over to outside shooting where the Eagles, who average more than 20 3-point attempts per game, were only able to get off 13 against the Griz.

The Eagles were forced into more one-on-one offense by the overall Grizzly defensive effort and wound up shooting a paltry 29.6 percent from the floor including 3 for 13 from downtown.

Montana forced 18 turnovers while committing just 12 against a good deal of “pressure” from the Eagles.

With eight minutes to go in the game the Grizzlies had a 25-point lead, built steadily after taking an 11-point bulge into the locker room at halftime. Montana started fast, leading 24-9 before EWU staged a bit of a comeback as Grizzly shooting cooled in the late stages of the first half.

The UM bench outscored EWU’s 16-13. The Eagles were tough on the offensive glass, but the two teams were even on the boards at game’s end.

Guard Will Cherry, despite suffering from some kind of bug, topped all scorers with 15 followed by Qvale’s 13 and Art Steward’s 11. Derek Selvig had a tough shooting night for the Griz but did a lot of the intangibles that make him so valuable. He also pulled down eight rebounds.

Seems like we always have to find something the Grizzlies did wrong. They had another off night at the free throw line, hitting just 11 of 18.

But boy, did they hustle and scrap at both ends. It paid huge dividends, and it’s something they need to continue doing until some of the walking wounded – namely Kareem Jamar and Billy Reader – get back to health.

TOUGH SHOOTING SECOND HALF DOOMS LADY GRIZ IN LOSS AT NAU

Seems like the Lady Griz haven’t figured out that shooting in the low 30s percentage-wise makes it tough to win.

That lesson was given again Thursday night as UM lost 64-60 at Northern Arizona.

The loss overshadowed senior Sarah Ena’s performance. Her 15 points made her the 27th player in Lady Griz history to score over 1,000 career points.

Ena has been the most consistent Lady Griz scorer over the past several games. But the team shooting 32.3 percent, including 8 of 36 in the second half (22.2 percent), just doesn’t get it done. Especially when the Lady Griz shot well in the first 20 minutes at 45 percent.

It was the 11th game in 16 outings this season in which Montana shot less than 35 percent.

It was made even more frustrating by the fact that the Lady Griz dominated the glass 49-35 including a 31-18 bulge in the second half.

It was Northern Arizona’s first home win over Montana in its last nine tries.

Joining Ena in double figures were Stephanie Stender with 13 and Katie Baker with 10. Torrey Hill had a nice game off the bench. The Anaconda freshman played 28 minutes and counted eight points, five assists and three steals.

Unless the poor shooting turns around, the Lady Griz could be in for a lot of tough outings down the stretch.

It certainly isn’t because of a lack of effort. The Lady Griz play hard, but you simply have to make shots to win tight games in particular. And for the most part, they haven’t done that this season.

LADY GRIZ HOLD OFF WEBER STATE, 57-52

The last thing a young, sometimes struggling and always growing basketball team needs is to have one of its most experienced players sit the bench for more than half the game in foul trouble, especially on the road, and even more especially in conference play.

But that’s what happened to the Lady Griz Saturday afternoon in Ogden, Utah. Sarah Ena, by far Montana’s most consistent scorer over the past three weeks or so, eventually fouled out against the Wildcats with just five points in 17 minutes of action.

Foul trouble is nothing new for Ena, but she’s being doing a much better job of staying out of it of late. But not Saturday.

Front and center came sophomores Katie Baker, Kenzie DeBoer and Alyssa Smith and true freshman Jordan Sullivan, with a dose of steady senior Stephanie Stender mixed in, as the Lady Griz staved off first- and second-half rallies by the determined Wildcats to win by five.

The Lady Griz led by as many as 12 in the first half and 10 in the second when the Wildcats cut into the leads. In the second half Weber even tied the game at 49-49, but UM gutted it out and prevailed.

The Lady Griz were able to overcome 20 turnovers, something that’s also especially hard to do on the road, because they caused 20 by the Wildcats as well and outrebounded the home team 40-34. Unlike their male UM counterparts the Montana women are pretty consistent at the free throw line, and for one of the few times this season they shot over 40 percent from the floor.

Back to those youngsters.

Baker led Montana with 12 points and 12 rebounds. Old lady Stender chipped in 11 helped by a 5-for-7 day from the floor. Sullivan added 10 points and five boards.

As is almost always the case the Lady Griz defense was more than effective. It seems like Montana’s ability to handle pressure still needs a lot of work. Fifteen of Montana’s 20 turnovers came on steals by the Wildcats.

But it’s a road win, and a road split for last week, something Montana desperately needed as it works into the heart of the season with home games coming up against Idaho State, sporting the best overall record in the league, and Montana State, now 3-0 in conference play.

GRIZ CASH IN ON LINE LATE, DOWN PORTLAND STATE 77-70

The big difference between Portland State and Eastern Washington was size. Both teams came to Missoula with lots of athletes with which to challenge the Grizzlies, but PSU had the size to challenge even Montana’s bigs.

Back to that mystery thing again. Pretty much all of the 4,500 fans in attendance were mystified as to how the more-than-aggressive Vikings made it through the first half with just four fouls.

Despite that, the Griz bumped along to a 31-26 halftime lead and answered each call when PSU challenged in the second half.

Given Montana’s 50 percent from throw shooting in the first half there was good reason for the boisterous crowd to worry when the Vikings had to foul, and they actually were called for it, down the stretch. The Grizzlies made all but a couple of charity tosses in the second half, and they needed to.

Perhaps the most interesting match-up of the night was Will Cherry for Montana and Charles Odum of Portland State. Both knifed through the defense and scored around the basket. Both were fun to watch.

While lacking in other areas, Montana played well enough on defense to ward off much of PSU’s three-point game. The Vikes managed to hit just 5 of 19 from out there, although the ones they hit late in the second half were clutch.

With both starting guards in foul trouble the Griz got some nice minutes from freshman Vaughn Autry, sophomore Mathias Ward and junior Jordan Wood. Art Steward proved he merits his starting spot. Good luck Kareem Jamar when you come off injury. It’s going to be hard to justify replacing Steward in the starting lineup, but then those are the kinds of problems Wayne Tinkle probably likes to deal with.

Cherry wound up with 19 points, seven assists and two steals. Steward added eight rebounds to his 17 points, and Brian Qvale worked through another night of being assaulted to rack up another double-double with 17 points and 14 rebounds.

Derek Selvig did so many things. Scoring wasn’t one of them, but with six points, six rebounds and six assists, he made his mark.

Things got real scary in the first half and again late in the game when Cherry was hobbled. Even with the owies he didn’t stay on the bench long. He still logged 34 minutes while Qvale played 37 and Steward 36.

Qvale needs just one more rejection to become the all-time blocks leader in Big Sky and UM history. That should happen this Thursday night at Pocatello when the Griz play always-scary Idaho State before hosting Montana State Saturday night.

The Griz, even in their down moments, are cohesive, aggressive and just plain fun to watch. Just ask the growing number of fans who are turning out at home games.

ON THE SIDE: With Qvale, Cherry and Selvig, in particular, having to log so many minutes during games, maybe Griz coaches should consider shortening practices a bit. It would be easy to be fatigued, especially if they face the same kind of physical battles on the road that they’ve had at home. Just a thought.

**************

Have a favorite UM Hoops memory– of men’s or womens basketball?   Here’s a link to Bill’s favorites.  Be sure to weigh-in…and enter to win a University of Montana print by Monte Dolack.

“Grizzly Bill” Schwanke is a UM journalism grad and Missoula native.  He spent 21 years doing play-by-play for Griz football and men’s basketball winning sportscaster of the year six times and working in Grizzly athletics for 15 years total. He’s enjoying retirement, especially the chance to spend time with his three grandsons. His wife Lynn and he have been married for 42years.