The absence of Montana’s two leading scorers proved crucial Thursday night, as the Grizzlies struggled on the offensive end and fell in a rematch with Eastern Washington 72-60 to split the season series.
The Griz missed out on Ahmaad Rorie and Walter Wright‘s combined 28.6 points per game average, with head coach Travis DeCuire making the decision to sit the pair, as the Eagles pulled out their first win in Missoula since 2015.
The Grizzlies (10-12/5-4 BSC) never found a rhythm offensively, scoring their fewest points on the season and dropping their third straight conference game, the longest conference losing streak since the 2003-04 season. Bogdan Bliznyuk led the Eagles (14-7/6-2 BSC), making 69 percent of his shots in a 28-point performance.
Michael Oguine and Sayeed Pridgett both played more than 35 minutes and did their best to carry the offensive load, scoring 14 and 11 respectively. But Montana struggled to make shots all night, shooting 41 percent and making just four shots from behind-the-arc, the lowest total of the season.
“To be honest, I think we defended well enough to win the game. We just couldn’t produce enough offense,” said DeCuire.
“It’s just one of those games where it was a tough outing for us. I think we played good basketball but just had some mental mistakes.”
The Grizzlies put up a valiant effort defensively after allowing 90 points per game in last week’s road trip, but Bliznyuk’s size and skill were too much for the Grizzly guards.
“If you told me going into this thing we were going to get fewer than 10 turnovers, and we hold (Felix) Von Hoffe to zero made shots and (Jacob) Wiley to 10 (points) and four (rebounds), I’d think we should be in pretty good shape after that.”
Montana’s replacement starters exceeded expectations to start the game, jumping out to a quick 6-0 lead behind an energetic home crowd. The Eagles stuck around, though, answering back with an 8-0 run of their own.
The offensive production of Wright and Rorie couldn’t be replaced in the first half, but Montana made up for it with a spirited performance on the defensive side. Neither team took a lead larger than three points until a Mason Peatling gave the Eagles a 26-20 lead with just over three minutes remaining.
The Griz couldn’t cut into the lead before the halftime break, as a last-second lay-in from the Eagles put them ahead 35-27 after 20 minutes of play. Montana finished the half shooting just 38 percent.
“We’ve been a little too streaky from our shooters, and you pay the price at times when those guys don’t knock down shots,” DeCuire added.
A cold start to the second half offensively, paired with Fabijan Krslovic picking up his fourth foul with 16 minutes left, helped Eastern take control. The Griz would score just one bucket in a four-minute stretch, which allowed the Eagles to spread the lead into double-digits at 47-36.
Heading into the second media timeout in the first half, the Grizzlies had six offensive rebounds, while the Eagles had just six rebounds in total. But Montana missed Krslovic’s inside presence due to foul trouble late in the game as UM was outrebounded 20-9 in the second half.
“That was huge,” DeCuire said of Krslovic’s absence. “We were playing small on the post, so we’re helping weak side, and guys got a running start to balls.”
Bliznyuk singlehandedly kept the Grizzlies at bay halfway through the final period, scoring seven consecutive points on three possessions to keep the lead in the double-digits, leading to the 12 point Eagle win.
“We know there’s no one in this conference we’re not capable of beating,” said DeCuire.
“For us, it’s all about momentum, getting people on the right page and getting the chemistry right and we’re headed in the right direction. We’ll be ok.”
Montana returns to the hardwood on Saturday night when the Idaho Vandals pay a visit to Dahlberg Arena after falling to Montana State 94-91 in double-overtime on Thursday.