Montana’s historic season came to a close on Thursday evening, as the Grizzlies fell to the seventh-ranked Michigan Wolverines, 61-47, in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The loss will be tough to swallow, but it shouldn’t overlook the memorable season Montana put together. The team finished with a 26-8 record, winning both the Big Sky Conference regular-season and tournament titles and advancing to the team’s first NCAA tournament since 2013. The 26 wins are the third-most in Montana history and featured historic achievements, including 13 consecutive victories, a 14-0 record at home and a school-record seven straight road wins.
“Their heart, their passion, their desire to perform,” head coach Travis DeCuire said, describing what he’d remember about this team. “I think I have a group of young men that gave me everything they had, and you can’t say that for every team every year. These guys were all in.
“They say family, and most of the time when you have a team that says family – because pretty much every team I’ve had says that – sometimes you have to define it for them. I didn’t have to do that for this team. They act like family on and off the court and they play like family. I’m proud of these young men. We know we got a tough draw, it was a tough basketball game. They showed up, they performed, they gave us everything they had. I’ll be talking about this team for a long time.”
Montana was excited just five days ago when it clinched the Big Sky’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, but all week the team talked about not just wanting to be on this stage, but to win on it. That mentality was no different on Thursday, especially with the Grizzlies’ hot start.
DeCuire had made it a focus to win the first 5 minutes of the game. He wanted to put Michigan on its heels and force the No. 3 seed to call timeout and reassess.
Three seconds into the contest, the Wolverines turned the ball over. Less than a minute in, Montana had a 5-0 lead, and just over 4 minutes in, the lead was up to 10-0. In the first 4 minutes, 16 seconds, before the Wolverines got on the board, they were 0-for-4 shooting with three fouls and two turnovers.
Montana held the lead through the first 13-plus minutes, and even when Michigan took its first lead with 3:59 to play in the half, the Grizzlies always stayed within five points and trailed by just three at the break.
So good all season long at coming out of halftime with a quick burst, the Grizzlies were unable to do so on Thursday. After Montana scored on its first trip up the court, the Grizzlies missed 12 consecutive shots and were held without a point for 9:56.
“That’s about as good of a coached team as I’ve seen in a long time,” DeCuire said. “I thought we executed well, there was just a stretch where they made some adjustments in our ball-screen coverage they took advantage of, and you would expect that out of a well-coached team.”
Ahmaad Rorie hit a three-pointer to break the drought, and over the next 7 minutes, Montana out-scored the Wolverines 14-9. Even while fouling in the closing minutes, over the final 9:30 of the game, Montana and Michigan each scored 17 points.
Michigan entered the game ranked second nationally, turning the ball over just 9.1 times per game. The Grizzlies forced Michigan into 14 miscues – the second-most all season. For the first time all year, Michigan had a negative assist-to-turnover ratio.
“If you’d have told me going into the game that they’d have a negative assist-to-turnover ratio and turn it over 14 times, we’d take nine more shots and basically break even on the glass with eight offensive rebounds to their five, I’d probably tell you we won.
“I thought our guys competed. They fought. They defended. Michigan made some adjustments in the first half in our ball-screen coverage, which I knew they would do. Once we made our adjustment, we were fine the rest of the way.”
In large part due to the second-half scoring draught, the Grizzlies shot just 32.1 percent in the game, including 25 percent in the second half. They made just 3-of-15 three-point attempts and scored 26 points in the paint, well below their season average. Montana’s 47 points were its fewest since scoring 46 on Dec. 19, 2015 at Kansas.
Michael Oguine and Rorie each had 15 points and seven rebounds. Oguine also added three assists, while Rorie had two assists and a pair of steals.
The Grizzlies accomplished plenty in 2017-18, but perhaps the most important was getting back to the Big Dance. Montana played in its 11th NCAA tournament on Thursday and seventh this century. However, Montana was able to break through for the first time under DeCuire, after several near-misses in his first two seasons.
It’s fitting that the Grizzlies were able to accomplish their goal in Fabijan Krslovic‘s final season. The lone senior on Montana’s roster, Krslovic has played in every game over the past four seasons, starting 116 contests and setting a school record with 132 games played. Krslovic also finished his collegiate career ranked in the top 10 in school history for career steals.
Still, though, the future is bright for Montana. This year’s quad, perhaps by some analysis, overperformed in 2017-18 and has the opportunity to be back in this spot – or further – in another year. Of the seven players who saw the floor on Thursday, six are expected to be back, as Montana returns most of its production.
“I feel like it was a huge step for our program, huge step for some of our guys,” Oguine said. “We lose Fab, but everyone else is going to be coming back. We’re going to be hungry, and hopefully we’ll have a better result next year.”