Defense key to Griz rematch with Hornets

By GoGriz.com

The month of February has been historically strong for the Montana men’s basketball team, understandably so with the business end of the season right around the corner.

The Griz are 31-8 in February since 2012, and 14-4 to date under head coach Travis DeCuire with three-straight wins since the calendar flipped over from January.

This year, Montana has bounced back from a four-game slide to win three-straight in February, picking up its second conference road sweep of the year at Southern Utah and Northern Arizona last week.

The hot streak couldn’t come at a better time for the Griz, as they prepare to host the two teams that started UM’s January slide – Sacramento State and Portland State – in the final homestand of the year at Dahlberg Arena.

With payback on their minds, March Madness starts now for the Griz.

THE GAME: Montana (13-13, 8-5 BSC) puts its three-game win streak on the line Thursday against Sacramento State (9-14, 6-6 BSC) who visit Missoula fresh off one of the biggest wins in their program’s history.

This past Thursday, the Hornets pulled off a 77-74 victory over league-leading Weber State in Sacramento, proving their upset over Montana on Jan. 21 in California’s capital wasn’t a fluke. The Hornets are ready to sting.

One of the – literally – big reasons for SSU’s recent success is this week’s Big Sky co-Player of the Week Eric Stuteville, a 6-11 senior center who averaged 20 points and 13 rebounds in a pair of wins over Weber State and Idaho State.

But since UM last played Stuteville and Sac. State, the Grizzlies have improved in the paint, outrebounding the best rebounding team in the league (NAU) on their home court, leading to a big 76-59 win in Flagstaff.

“He (Stuteville) absolutely dominated Weber on Thursday night, just controlled the boards and controlled the paint,” said UM associate head coach Chris Cobb. “He’s a huge key, but it’s no different than what we did on Saturday at NAU, so there are some parallels to those games, and we need to take the same approach we did.”

During its two Big Sky road sweeps this season, Montana’s defense held opponents to less than 60 points in all four games and has been one of the driving factors in all of UM’s wins so far this season, remaining undefeated when holding opponents to 70 points or less.

With Montana seeking a top-five finish in the Big Sky standings, and currently sitting in a tie for fourth with Idaho, Montana is getting laser focused on the task at hand this week.

“When we’re locked in and we know we’re up against the wall, we usually have good weeks of practice, and we usually play well. So I think we’ve got the guys attention this week,” said DeCuire.

“Those two teams (SSU and PSU) are very good offensively. If you look at the reason we lose, we give up 88, 92 points in each, and we scored in the 80’s and lost. That should never happen. We need to bring it defensively, and I think the guys know that.”

The Griz and Hornets tip off in Missoula at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 16.

FUN STUFF: Thursday’s game against Sac. State is UM Staff Appreciation Night, where all UM employees will get FREE general admission entry for themselves and up to three friends and family members.

During the month of February, kids 12-and-under also get FREE general admission entry into Griz games.

WATCH/LISTEN: Fans around the world can watch UM vs. SSU live and free of charge on the league’s digital video streaming platform WatchBigSky.com, and via the Big Sky Conference Mobile App, available to download free from the App Store and on Google Play.

The “Voice of the Griz” Riley Corcoran will bring you the statewide radio call on the Montana Grizzlies Radio Network. An audio-only stream of the radio call is also available at GoGriz.com. Fans can also follow live twitter updates @UMGRIZZLIES_BB, and a link to live stats is available at GoGriz.com.

SERIES HISTORY: Montana leads the all-time series against Sac. State 38-8, with three of those eight losses happening in Sacramento.

The Grizzlies have never lost a regular season game to the Hornets in Missoula, however. The only time Sac. State has beaten UM in the Garden City was back in 2003 at the Big Sky Conference tournament, hosted by Montana.

LAST MEETING: Sacramento State drained six three-pointers and built an 11-point lead in the first half that Montana couldn’t recover from as the Grizzlies fell 92-83 in Sacramento for the team’s second-straight loss.

Freshman Sayeed Pridgett was a monster for the Griz in that game, scoring a career-high 28 points, pulling down four rebounds and dishing out three assists.

LAST TIME IN MISSOULA: The Griz moved to 7-0 at home in the 2015-16 season with a 77-58 win over the Hornets on Jan. 9 in Missoula.

Jack Lopez drained a career high 21 points going 5-of-8 from behind the arc, and Walter Wright dished out a career-high 12 assists in the home win. As a team, the Griz gave out 22 assists to just eight turnovers.

GRIZ BITS: Montana’s victory at NAU was the 75th career start for junior forward Fabijan Krslovic… Thursday’s game against Sacramento State will give senior Jack Lopez his 40th career start, and sophomore Michael Oguine his 50th career start as well… Jared Samuelson‘s 20 points at NAU was good enough to earn him Montana’s nomination for Big Sky Player of the Week, and award shared by Sac. State’s Eric Stuteville and North Dakota’s Quinton Hooker… Against the Lumberjacks the Griz gave out 12 assists compared to NAU’s 13. It’s only the second time this season the Griz have won when dishing out fewer assists than their opponent.