Montana beats UC Irvine

Montana's Fabijan Krslovic pulls down a rebound in the second half against UC Irvine on Dec. 19 at Dahlberg Arena.

TOMMY MARTINO, MISSOULIAN

MISSOULA — Montana forward Fabijan Krslovic has come close to making the NCAA tournament in his first three seasons with the Griz.

The lone senior on this year’s roster, he was on Griz teams that lost in the Big Sky Conference tournament championship game his freshman and sophomore seasons. Last year, the Griz were knocked out in the quarterfinals with a four-point loss to Idaho.

Had the Griz won, it would’ve set up a matchup with top-seeded North Dakota in the semifinals. The Fighting Hawks went on to win the tournament title and earn an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament, but they might not have had they had to play the Griz.

The teams met once earlier in the season, and Montana handed North Dakota a 76-70 loss on Jan. 14 in Missoula. While another win wouldn’t be a lock, it would’ve been an intriguing matchup.

The Griz missed out on that opportunity and played North Dakota for the first time since that January victory on Thursday. They beat the Fighting Hawks, 109-79, and improved to 6-0 against them under fourth-year head coach Travis DeCuire.

With the win, the Griz have started 3-0 in conference play in their quest to earn a one of the top seeds in the league tournament as they try to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in five seasons. They face Northern Colorado 7 p.m. Saturday in what could be a preview of a Big Sky tournament semifinal or title game.

“It’d be huge,” Krslovic said of potentially closing his career in the NCAA tournament. “It’s obviously the reason I came to the University of Montana because of the success, especially the last couple years before I was here. We’ve been very close two times. For my last year, that’d be an awesome way to go out.

“Right now, I’m just focusing on the day to day and improving every game because I know that we have the personnel to compete with anyone in our league. If we do things right, the results will take care of themselves.”

When Montana beat North Dakota last season, Krslovic recorded a double-double of 16 points and 10 rebounds in 24 minutes. It remains the most recent game in which he had a double-double.

On Thursday, he finished with seven points, three rebounds and one assist.

In six career games against North Dakota, Krslovic has averaged 7.5 points and 4.7 rebounds. He’s totaled six steals, five assists and one block.

“Krslovic has always been a thorn in our side,” 12th-year North Dakota coach Brian Jones told 406mtsports.com. “It always starts with him defensively, and he’s had good games offensively, even though that hasn’t been his role in the past.

“He’s an unsung hero. He’s a kid I’d love to coach because his motor is ridiculous and his toughness is ridiculous. He concerns me because he’s always hurt us with effort plays, motor plays, toughness plays, and he’s been able to defend multiple guys and our guards because he can really slide his feet.”

Krslovic has taken a new but familiar role this season. With a depth of traditional bigs — like when he played with Martin Breunig as a freshman and sophomore — he’s not relied upon for scoring.

Coming into Thursday's game, he was averaging 4.4 points and shooting a career-high 72.7 percent at the free-throw line. He’s grabbing 4.3 rebounds per game and is helping make plays for others with an average of 2.3 assists over the past four games after just 0.8 through the first 10 games.

“I have to keep giving it everything I have each time I step on the court,” Krslovic said. “I’ve never really cared much about stats. I care about winning games and doing what I can to win. Even when I’m sure I’m more aggressive than others, I like to do the things other guys might not enjoy doing as much.

“We want to keep improving, keep enjoying playing well and trying to get everyone to the point where we are doing the right things for 40 minutes (and) we have the whole team loving sacrificing their bodies, making the hustle plays. I’m sure if we do all those things, we have talent all over the court to succeed.”

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