MISSOULA — Montana head coach Travis DeCuire has used the phrase “compete with desperation” several times over the past few weeks.
It's something he felt the team lacked on a consistent basis early in the season. They played up to their competition when they took on Power Five schools like Pitt and Stanford, but they also played down to Division III Whitworth and NAIA Carroll and nearly blew a second-half lead to Oral Roberts.
When they faced mid-majors like UC Santa Barbara and Georgia State, they fell down by 18 and 17 points, respectively. Although they lost both games after tying or taking the lead, the effort they showed in their comeback attempts is what DeCuire hoped to see for 40 minutes and what led to the motto.
Following the loss to Georgia State on Dec. 9, they’ve gone 5-1 with a 66-63 loss to Washington and are outscoring their opponents by 18.2 points (83.5 to 65.3). They beat back-to-back opponents by 30 or more points for the first time since 1973-74.
The rise has coincided with the break in between semesters, which DeCuire highlighted as a chance for players to focus solely on basketball.
“When we were down to Georgia State and Santa Barbara, there was a sense of desperation that you could see from our energy, our enthusiasm defensively, our grit offensively,” DeCuire said. “Who cares what the score is? Play with the same desperation you compete with when you’re losing. Let’s pretend we’re down right now. Let’s go out and start the game like that. Since then, we’ve played a lot better.”
The Griz (10-5, 3-0) have appeared to turn a corner as they welcome Northern Colorado to Dahlberg Arena 7 p.m. Saturday. Taking on a veteran-laden team that redshirted seniors last year since it was ineligible for the postseason should be the Grizzlies' first test to see where they stack up in the Big Sky. Montana's three conference wins have come against teams that are a combined 0-9 in league play.
"We have the mentality of being desperate and playing each game like a conference championship is on the line," Griz guard Mike Oguine said. "I feel (competing with desperation) brings a new energy in us."
The Golden Bears (11-5, 2-1) had won six of seven games before they lost, 76-64, at Montana State on Thursday. They knocked off Wyoming and South Dakota, beat conference foe Idaho, and lost at UNLV by three points.
Northern Colorado is led by guards Andre Spight and Jordan Davis, who can create shots for themselves and others. Spight, a redshirt senior transfer from Arizona State, paces the team in scoring (18.4) and assists (3.3) while shooting 37 percent on 3-pointers.
Davis, a junior named to the Big Sky preseason all-conference team, is averaging 17.2 points per game and shooting 55.6 percent from the field.
“We know that Spight releases off the dribble and Davis likes to post up,” Oguine said. “Regardless of who has the ball, we’re going to load up and make it feel like the whole team is guarding them when they have the ball.”
The Golden Bears can play with three or four guards at a time with reigning Big Sky defensive player of the year Jonah Radebaugh (44.1 percent on 3-pointers, team-high 20 steals) and redshirt senior guard Anthony Johnson (11.1 points) off the bench.
Jalen Sanders, a 6-foot-5 freshman, is averaging 8.9 points and has a team-high 24 blocks at power forward. Tanner Morgan, a 6-foot-9 redshirt senior, adds 5.8 points and 5.9 rebounds at center.
“It’s going to be important for us to get back in transition,” DeCuire said. “Their guards are going to be trying to get to the paint and play one on one in space with a ton of ball screens. We need to defend the ball screens and keep them out of the paint as much as possible.
“For us, I see advantages to pound the ball into the paint.”
NOTES: Montana's 109 points scored against North Dakota on Thursday are tied for the third most in school history and second most against a Division I opponent. The Griz beat Idaho State, 111-84, in 1965-66, and Montana Western, 110-71, in 2005-06. They scored 109 against Idaho State in 1990-91 and Northern Arizona in 1970-71. They improved to 29-0 in games in which they scored 100 or more points.