BOISE, Idaho — They struck like lightning early.
Then it was a matter of holding on.
The top-seeded Montana Grizzlies advanced to the semifinal round of the Big Sky Conference men's basketball tournament with a 79-73 win over Sacramento State on Thursday at CenturyLink Arena. The Hornets used a zone defense and a scoring surge by Marcus Graves to erase most of a 21-point first-half deficit, but veteran-laden Montana showed poise late.
"Sometimes you feel a lot better when you know you've got guys that have been here before," said UM coach Travis DeCuire, who guided his team to a Big Sky tourney title last March.
"It's been a long season, a lot of adversity, and I think that the grit that the adversity creates for us paid off in this one today. Marcus Graves showed up, senior, competitor. But we had four guys in double figures."
Montana advanced to play Weber State, an 81-71 winner over Portland State, in a Friday semifinal at 5:30 p.m.
The Grizzlies (24-8) were led by Michael Oguine with 19 points, Ahmaad Rorie 17, Sayeed Pridgett 16 and Kendal Manuel 11. Graves, whose team never did manage to make it a one-possession game in the second half, piled up a game-high 30 points.
"We're scrappy, that's a big part of it," Oguine said of his team. "Sacramento State, they run their offense pretty well. They like to run a lot of guys off a lot of screens. That takes a lot of energy to fight through those the whole game.
"Now we have to adjust because the team we play (Friday) is going to do something very different. I think our team is very good at making adjustments. We're going to be confident going into it."
It looked as if Montana might blow Sac State (15-16) out of the arena early. The Hornets were without injured starting guard Izayah Mauriohooho-Le'afa, who scored 17 points the day before in a tournament opener against Northern Arizona, and the Grizzlies used their three-guard starting lineup to dominate.
"Being my last one, it's just about leaving everything out on the floor," Oguine said. "We don't want to have any regrets.
"Getting to a good start was a key for me. Playing with passion and energy, when you do that you usually like the results."
Donaven Dorsey's 3-ball gave Montana a gaudy 41-20 lead with just under 2 minutes left in the first half. Then Sac State went on a 5-0 mini-run to end the first half and it was a sign of things to come.
The Hornets switched to a zone defense in the second half and it slowed down the Grizzlies. Graves hit his sixth 3-ball with 21 ticks left, then added a three-point play seven seconds later, to shave his team's deficit to 77-73.
The Hornets quickly fouled Manuel, who missed the front end of a one-and-one. But they failed to capitalize, with Chibueze Jacobs missing a shot that was rebounded by Montana's Bobby Moorehead. Moorehead was fouled with 2.8 seconds left and made both of his free throws.
Sac State coach Brian Katz, whose team was blown out by Montana twice during the regular season, was proud of the Hornets' moxie.
"We just felt if we keep them out of transition and they played halfcourt, there was a chance," he said of switching to a 2-3 zone. "But they're a really good team. I like a lot of their parts."
DeCuire said his team has seen a lot of zone this season. The experience came in handy.
"Eighty percent of our games have probably been (against) zone because we either made a run or it's part of their game plan," he said. "We've learned to not settle for a million threes and how to attack zones.
"But that comes down to patience. It takes a very unselfish team to execute against zone."
The Grizzlies and Hornets battled to a draw on the boards, 30-30. Montana had the better shooting day (31 for 59) and held a 38-26 edge in points in the paint.
As his press conference was winding down, a reporter asked DeCuire to compare playing in Boise to playing in Reno, Nevada, where UM won the tourney last year. DeCuire joked that the reporter was "trying to get me in trouble." Then he responded with candor, hinting at his liking for the way things used to be when the regular-season champion hosted.
"It's March and these kids deserve to play in front of a large crowd," he offered, noting that Boise has done a nice job hosting.
"When you have programs like ours and Weber's that draw the way we draw, why not play in front of 7,000 people? ... I just know that when that championship game is on ESPN, the years we're fortunate to have the No. 1 seed in the championship, I think the world needs to see the kind of support some of these programs have if we want the Big Sky to have a brand. Brand is all about exposure."