Manuel’s Clutch Free Throws Lift Grizzlies to Slugfest Wim over Hornets


Tied at 50-50 with 5.2 seconds to play, Montana inbounded the ball with the intention to run a cross, hoping to find a backdoor cut down low, or somehow get to the rim.

The Grizzlies never made it that far. Sacramento State instead made the mistake of fouling the league’s top free-throw shooter.

Running up the court, Kendal Manuel cut to the center just beyond the three-point arc. He was tripped in the process, sending the veteran shooter to the free-throw line in a tie game with 2.5 seconds on the clock.

Manuel, a Billings native, entered the night ranked 19th nationally, having made 92 percent of his free-throw attempts on the season. He’s missed just three free throws all season and just one in his past 39 attempts.

With the game on the line, Manuel calmly sank the first one to give Montana a 51-50 lead.

Photo courtesy of Grizzly Athletics

Then, he took a few steps toward the bench and conferred with Travis DeCuire. They decided he would intentionally miss the second one, forcing the Hornets to have to corral a loose ball on the other side of the court with very little time on the clock.

Instead, Manuel – so good and so accustomed to the routine of making the shot – sank the second, as well.

“I guess it just wanted to go in,” Manuel said afterward with a smile. “I wasn’t nervous at the line. I’ve played enough college basketball to calm myself down. I felt comfortable and it was a great win.”

The Hornets heaved the inbound past midcourt to Joshua Patton, who tapped it to teammate Jordan Cooke-Harper on the left side. Cooke-Harper took an off-balanced desperation shot at the buzzer, which fell well short of drawing iron, sending Montana into a celebration.

The Grizzlies are now 2-0 to begin Big Sky play, despite leading for a combined 18 minutes, including just 5:49 on Monday.

“Defense wins games, and I think these are two really good defensive teams,” DeCuire said. “We knew, if we were going to pull this game off, our defense was going to have to be efficient. The guys scrapped for us tonight. We fought in the sandpit and won.”

Knowing they were in store for a defensive battle is an understatement. The Hornets entered the game ranked third nationally for scoring defense and sixth for field-goal defense. They were as good as advertised, too, but Montana’s defense was up for the challenge as well.

Montana shot just .339 from the floor, but also held Sacramento State to a .360 clip while forcing the Hornets into 18 turnovers, compared to the Grizzlies’ nine giveaways. In the end, Montana never led by more than two points all night, with the 52 points being the fewest scored in a victory since January 1998. Ironically, that game also came against Sacramento State inside Dahlberg Arena, with the final score being the exact same, 52-50.

“For us to shoot 34 percent from the floor and win, that’s a sign of growth,” DeCuire said. “I don’t know if we were tough enough to pull these types of games off a week ago.”

Montana trailed for most of the first half and entered the locker room down seven, 27-20, after shooting just .265 from the floor. Coming out of the intermission, though, the Grizzlies were revitalized, scoring the first eight points and reclaiming the lead 28-27 just 3:04 into the period. During that time, Jared Samuelson – who had a breakout game with 14 points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots – took over.

Sacramento State quickly fired back, though, taking advantage of back-to-back Griz miscues for fast-break buckets to go up six, 35-29. Moments later, the visitors took another six-point lead, 41-35, on a three-point basket.

The next seven points, though, went to the Griz, including a driving layup from Sayeed Pridgett to put Montana on top 42-41 and set up an epic final 5 minutes. There would be five lead changes and five tie scores during that span, with neither team leading by more than two points.

Montana took a 48-46 lead with under 2 minutes to play on a layup from Samuelson, but the Hornets responded with a three-pointer with 58 seconds on the clock, to take a 49-48 lead. On the other end, Manuel made two free throws to put the Grizzlies back in front, 50-49.

Sacramento State’s Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa drove to the basket along the baseline, attempting to give his team the win, but instead drew a foul. He missed the first free-throw attempt, but made the second to knot the score with 5.2 seconds to play.

That led to Manuel’s heroics at the free throw line and a 2-0 start to Big Sky play for Montana.

“We knew coming into the game it was going to be a grind, and probably come down to the last possession,” Manuel said. “It feels good to get the win.”

While Manuel took the spotlight thanks to his clutch shots from the charity stripe, the night belonged to Samuelson and his near double-double. He led the team for both scoring and rebounds, while playing a season-high 30 minutes. He was impactful at clutch times, too.

During Montana’s 8-0 run to start the second half, Samuelson had three points, three rebounds, two blocked shots, an assist and a steal in just 3:24. He had a layup to get Montana within a point with 6 minutes to play and another to give the Grizzlies a 48-46 lead with under 2 minutes remaining.

“He gave us some games like that as a freshman, so we knew he was capable,” DeCuire said. “The biggest thing for Jared, when you talk about his maturity, it’s in the loose balls that he got on the floor, the big rebounds down the stretch, his ability to guard on the block without needing help. His maturity won us the game.”

Pridgett finished the night with 14 points, eight rebounds and four steals, while Manuel totaled 13. Kyle Owens had eight points and six boards. Timmy Falls was held scoreless, but played a key role, totaling five assists, a steal and a blocked shot. He had a blocked shot and an assist on the first two possessions of the second half and a steal late in the game with Montana up two.

Montana is now 2-0 to begin Big Sky play, but will face a tough upcoming slate, with six of the next eight games being on the road, including the next three against some of the top teams in the league. The Grizzlies next play at Southern Utah on Thursday (7 p.m.).