BOISE, Idaho — A scintillating version of small ball has the Montana men's basketball team one win away from the NCAA tournament.
The Grizzlies raced to a big first-half lead en route to a comprehensive 78-49 victory over Weber State on Friday in the semifinal round of the Big Sky Conference tournament. Playing in front of a large partisan crowd at CenturyLink Arena, top-seeded Montana (25-8) capitalized on a cat-quick starting lineup that included guards Ahmaad Rorie, Michael Oguine and Timmy Falls.
Weber State veteran coach Randy Rahe says the new-look Grizzly lineup, which also includes agile forwards Sayeed Pridgett and Bobby Moorehead, is in some ways harder to guard. Montana lost its leading scorer and rebounder, post Jamar Akoh, to an injury early last month.
"You have to take your hat off to them," Rahe said. "I thought they were as good as I've seen them for a long, long time."
Rorie was perhaps better than he's been all season, finishing with 28 points — just two off his career high. Moorehead had a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds and Pridgett pitched in with 14 points.
"It's been an emotional year for these guys and to find themselves back in the championship game is huge," said Montana coach Travis DeCuire, whose team will play Eastern Washington in the title game Saturday at 6 p.m. (ESPNU).
"That was probably our best defensive performance all year, maybe in my five years here. That's a pretty explosive offense that we were able to hold to 49 points."
Rorie was the catalyst in the first half, hitting his first seven shots, including three triples, in piling up 18 points with three assists. Montana shot 56.7 percent from the floor (17 for 30) and boasted a 42-22 halftime advantage.
The Grizzlies had an eerily similar start in Thursday's quarterfinal round, using their small-ball lineup to overwhelm Sacramento State. The difference Friday was that they never allowed Weber State (18-15) back in the game.
"We went into halftime today and everybody just looked locked in," said Rorie, whose team has reached the Big Sky title game four of the last five seasons. "Myself and Bob (Moorehead) were just trying to tell everybody just keep your foot on the gas."
DeCuire tried to put in perspective the defensive gems turned in by Rorie and Moorehead. Weber State forward Jerrick Harding came into the game averaging close to 22 points per game and teammate Zach Braxton was averaging almost 10 in the post.
They were held to 15 points combined.
"To put Ahmaad on Harding and put Bob (Moorehead) on the post, I thought was a huge adjustment for us," DeCuire said. "For Bob to be able to guard Braxton one-on-one in the paint and not require a double-team allowed us to stick with shooters. And for Ahmaad to hold Harding to eight shots was huge."
Though it's hard to pick out a key moment in a game that was so lopsided, the fans left with one lasting image from the first half. After Weber trimmed its deficit to 24-14 with just under 9 minutes left before intermission, Falls came out of nowhere to intercept a pass near the midcourt line, then dunked the ball emphatically.
The Wildcats never managed to get within 10 again.
"Our level of intensity is really high right now," DeCuire marveled. "As you know me, I'm pretty intense myself and it's contagious. But I've got a group of competitors in that locker room. They've been waiting for this."
The final statistics reflected Montana's dominance.
The Grizzlies shot 47.5 percent from the floor (29 for 61) and the Wildcats 31.5 percent (17 for 54). Montana held a 42-31 edge in rebounds and a 30-18 advantage in points in the paint.
Moorehead said the support of Grizzly fans helped the cause.
"I think we have the most people by far here," he said. "I think that's pretty special. We had a lot in Reno but I think it's significantly more here. That's incredible."
Now comes the hardest part for Montana: beating third-seeded Eastern Washington (16-17). The Eagles have won four games in a row and they handed Montana a 78-71 road loss on Jan. 10.
The Grizzlies edged Eastern 75-74 in Missoula on Feb. 9. At that time Montana was without Akoh and it was before DeCuire started using Falls in his starting lineup.
"We've been down this road before," DeCuire said of the Grizzlies, who won the Big Sky tourney title last March.
"To have a group that has the experience of being on both sides of it, they understand how important this is. We need to make sure we have fuel in that tank because it's not going to be easy. ... Losing to Eastern, that's the game that woke us up and set the tone.
"I can't wait to pour a little water on these guys, so hopefully we get to that point."
Notes: Montana has reached the Big Sky title game eight of the last 10 seasons ... The Grizzlies set a program record for most wins in a two-season time frame (51) ... In their one-point win over Eastern on Feb. 9, Oguine's free throw with 29 seconds left was the difference.