When the Montana men's basketball team took a one-point lead with under nine minutes to go against New Mexico on Sunday afternoon in Albuquerque, it seemed like a breakthrough.
Montana has struggled at points in the second half this season and pushing through for a lead with 8:59 to go in the hostile confines of The Pit is progress. But the hard part — finishing those types of games — is where the Grizzlies are still learning.
Senior guard Sayeed Pridgett scored 25 points and recorded his second-straight double-double with 10 rebounds, but Montana fell to the Lobos 72-63. The Grizzlies dropped to 3-5 on the season while New Mexico improved to 7-2.
“These guaranteed games are getting very difficult for us, my guys fought,” Montana head coach Travis DeCuire told KGVO radio after the game. “They fought for us, I think they played hard, they had all the right intent … there’s some things we can do better down the stretch to win these games. It would have almost taken a perfect finish for us.”
Montana’s lead down the stretch was short lived. With 8:35 left, Mack Anderson was called for a foul, sending New Mexico’s Carlton Bragg to the free-throw line. He hit both and Montana never led again.
The Lobos were at the line more often than not during the game, hitting 22 of 35 free throws. Montana shot only seven free throws, making four.
Timmy Falls and DJ Carter-Hollinger both fouled out, with the former picking up three fouls in the first four minutes of the game. One was a technical, which according to the AT&T SportsNet broadcast was for arguing a foul call.
In any case, Falls played only 19 minutes, 15 of which came in the second half. He played well for the most part and his only score of the day, a layup off a Josh Vazquez pass at the 3:48 mark, brought Montana with four points.
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But Bragg, who had 20 points 14 rebounds and was 9 of 11 at the free-throw line, hit a tough layup on the other end to put New Mexico up six. The Grizzlies closed to five points on the next possession, but got no closer than that.
"We just didn't have a lot of burst (Sunday)," New Mexico coach Paul Weir told the Associated Press. "We have to find a way to get that back by Wednesday. That being said, to not be where we really want to be physically and grind out a nine-point win against a pretty good basketball team is encouraging."
Vazquez had a career-high 16 points and hit four 3-point shots for Montana. The freshman guard was crucial down the stretch and played one of his best games of the season. Vazquez has now hit two or more 3-pointers in four straight games. He had nine of his 16 points in the first half and was key to the Grizzlies staying afloat during several scoring droughts.
“He’s got more aggressive offensively,” DeCuire said. “I’m trying to play him off the ball a little bit, put him in some spots where he can catch it and shoot it … he’s putting himself in all the right places, he’s growing up a little bit.”
Carter-Hollinger had seven points and five rebounds for Montana.
Montana hosts North Dakota at 7 p.m. on Friday to close out its nonconference home slate. Fans who are attending Saturday’s Montana football game will be able to buy basketball tickets for a reduced price.
“Hopefully the weather is fair so we get some people there. Obviously it’s not that right now,” DeCuire said. “So we’ll play the best basketball we can play for whoever’s there. Hopefully the people that are loyal to us come and enjoy what we bring.”