The Montana men's basketball team lacked the offensive burst out of halftime it has shown over the past few weeks of conference play.
The Griz blew their eight-point halftime lead over North Dakota but used timely offense and just enough defense in the second half to help them grind out a 72-67 win on Saturday in Grand Forks, North Dakota. They improved to 11-0 in the Big Sky Conference.
It was the first time in league play that the Griz scored fewer points in the second half than they did in the first half. They had 39 in the first half, 33 in the second.
“Grit, no glamour,” Griz head coach Travis DeCuire said of the victory on KGVO Radio after the game. “We’ve come from behind every time we’ve won here. … I thought the guys hung in there, they knew it was going to be a difficult game and they stuck together and they fought.”
He added later: “I thought the guys started playing more aggressive. Our pace got better in the second half than the first, but it’s been like that anyway. I think we had a sense of confidence.”
Montana became the first team in program history to win seven consecutive road games, and DeCuire became the fastest coach to reach 50 Big Sky victories, doing so in 65 games.
Forward Jamar Akoh paced the Griz with 23 points while playing through foul trouble. He scored nine of his points after Montana trailed by four with under 12 minutes to go. He grabbed 11 rebounds for his fifth double-double and had a team-high three steals.
The Griz scored 34 points in the paint as they worked the ball to Akoh and Fabijan Krslovic, who added 12 points. The Fighting Hawks tried to take away the inside presence, forcing seven second-half turnovers, which helped them erase the halftime deficit and take a second-half lead.
“We knew there’d be an advantage once we got it in there,” DeCuire said. “We need to play strong. We need to protect the ball. They deflected some things and knocked it out of our hands.”
Guard Mike Oguine scored seven of his 12 points in the final three minutes to help the Griz extend their two-point lead and seal the win. He had sat out the final 16:23 of Thursday’s win after he appeared to injure his right knee.
Oguine and the defensive-oriented Griz locked down and held North Dakota to 37 percent shooting in the second half after allowing 53.8 percent in the first half. North Dakota was 14 of 19 at the free-throw line in the second half after 2 of 4 in the first half.
"He had to scrap for it," DeCuire said of Oguine's offense. "... His defense is what helped us win."
Guard Ahmaad Rorie finished with nine points on an off-night shooting, but he made his impact with a team-high seven assists.
Saturday's contest was a much closer game than the Grizzlies’ 109-79 blowout victory over North Dakota on Jan. 4 in Missoula. The Griz never trailed in the second half of that game and had trailed for a combined 6:43 in the second halves of their first 10 conference games.
The first half featured 10 lead changes before the Griz went on a 7-0 run in the final four minutes and took a 39-31 lead into the break. North Dakota’s Cortez Seales scored 14 of his team-high 19 points that half.
After six first-half turnovers, the Griz committed four in the first 3:06 of the second half. Their lead was cut to 41-40 as North Dakota opened on a 9-2 run with seven points from Conner Avants, who scored 13 of his 15 in the second half.
The Griz fell into their first deficit since 23-22 when Geno Crandall made a pair of free throws for a 47-45 North Dakota advantage before the under-12 media timeout. Trailing 49-45, Akoh scored seven consecutive Montana points to give the Griz a 52-50 lead.
However, he picked up his fourth foul moments later and went to the bench with 8:40 remaining. He returned two minutes later with Montana down 55-54 and scored a layup. Rorie drained a 3-pointer, and Akoh added another layup to put Montana up 62-57.
After North Dakota cut Montana’s lead to 62-60 with 2:37 to play, Oguine got an offensive rebound off a missed Bobby Moorehead 3-pointer and converted a layup. Two possessions later, he made a 3-pointer from the right wing to put the Griz up 67-60.
Oguine added a pair of free throws as the intentional fouling began. Crandall made a step-back 3-pointer with 10 seconds left to trim Montana’s lead to 70-67, but Rorie made two free throws to seal the win.