BOZEMAN — No seniors, no problem. The Montana men’s basketball team has sophomores to spare.
Sophomore Keron DeShields matched his career high with 17 points and the Griz overcame the absence of senior starters Will Cherry and Mathias Ward to take a 71-68 win over Montana State on Saturday night in front of 4,571 disappointed fans at Worthington Arena.
DeShields had plenty of help from his healthy comrades. Juniors Kareem Jamar and Spencer Coleman added 14 points apiece and sophomore Jordan Gregory chipped in 11. Another super soph, Mike Weisner, added eight points, including a clutch 3-pointer to blunt an MSU charge.
“Great gut check by our guys,” said Montana coach Wayne Tinkle, who improved to 11-4 against the Bobcats. “We were facing a lot of adversity heading over here to face a dangerous team without two of our more mature, mentally tough players. I’m proud of the grit in this environment, especially in the second half when (MSU) had a ton of momentum going and they were getting great breaks because they were earning them by playing their tails off. Our guys found a way to ride it out and finish it off with a great win.”
The Grizzlies’ sixth straight win over the Cats pushed them to 16-1 in the Big Sky Conference, 20-6 overall. Montana, which has won 33 of its last 35 games against Big Sky foes, reached the 20-win mark for the fourth straight season, tying a school record. The Griz, ranked 14th in the mid-major poll, also maintained their one-game lead over Weber State in the league standings with three games to play. The Wildcats escaped Northern Arizona’s upset bid to pull out an 80-78 overtime win on Saturday.
At this point it doesn’t seem to matter who Tinkle plugs into the starting lineup; everyone responds.
“It all started last year,” said Jamar. “We had guys like Keron and Jordan, they all went up against (seniors) Art Steward, Shawn Stockton and Jordan Wood. They were ready for this. It’s been cooking for a long time. When we go at it in practice every single day, with the coaches we have, they have us ready. We were built for this. Our coaches build us for moments like this. I’m glad we pulled it out and I’m proud of Keron and Jordan.”
The Griz also needed to overcome a career night from MSU junior forward Flavien Davis, who scored a career-best 30 points, 20 above his average.
“All year it’s (Christian) Moon got it, (Xavier Blount) got it, I got it,” Davis said. “I guess tonight was the night. Coach ran a lot of isolation plays for me and I tried to take advantage of it. I just wanted to make the correct plays.”
The Griz expanded a 37-27 halftime lead to as many as 16 points on several occasions, the last time at 62-46 on a three-point play by DeShields with 11:17 to play. The Bobcats responded with a 10-0 run — six of those coming from Davis — to draw within 62-56.
The Bobcats’ zone defense stymied the Griz during that run, holding them without a bucket for 5 minutes, 17 seconds.
“I obviously regret … not doing something like that a little earlier,” MSU coach Brad Huse said of the switch to the zone defense in the second half. “They shoot the ball so well. It’s a risk jumping into a zone, but at that point we had nothing to lose. The timing of it disrupted their flow. By then the damage had been done. Montana really, really executes, is patient and gets the right shot. That’s the nature of how they operate.”
The drought finally ended when Weisner drained a long trey. Jamar followed with another and the Griz had a 68-56 edge.
“Money,” Tinkle said is the name of the play that got Weisner free for the trey. “We put it in two days ago at the end of practice. I have so many stupid names for plays so I said you guys name it and they said let’s call it the money play. It was executed really well by these guys.”
But the Griz managed just three points over the final 5:18, allowing the Cats (8-10, 11-16) to claw their way back. An inside bucket from Davis and an 18-foot jumper by Antonio Biglow brought MSU within 71-68 with 53 seconds left. Following a Griz miss, the Cats had one last chance, but couldn’t get off a 3-pointer. Instead, Biglow drove the baseline, ran into Coleman and was called for an offensive foul.
Jamar missed a free throw with 1.7 seconds to play and after some discussion, the officials ruled the game had ended before MSU could get off another shot.
DeShields said he wanted to get the win for the injured seniors.
“I give credit to Coach Tinkle, and Will (Cherry) and Kareem, they’ve been coaching me up,” DeShields said. “I was ready for it because of those guys. I go against the best point guard (Cherry) in the Big Sky night in and night out in practice, so I was ready.
“Of course I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity, but I wasn’t looking forward to it because my guy’s hurt. I want him out there and I told him that. I told the guys this one’s for them, the two seniors.”
Without a senior on the floor, Griz fans got a sneak preview of next year’s team.
“The future looks pretty good,” Tinkle said. “These guys can tell you. We weren’t panicked coming over here. We knew our backs were against the wall. These guys show us every day how hard they want to fight. They’re kids that really believe. It’s nice to be around them and coach them every day. It was a big win for us and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
MONTANA 71, MONTANA ST. 68
MONTANA (20-6)-Gregory 4-7 0-0 11, DeShields 5-12 6-6 17, Coleman 5-8 1-2 14, Jamar 5-8 3-5 14, Hutchison 1-3 0-0 2, Henderson 1-3 0-0 3, Wiley 1-3 0-0 2, Weisner 3-7 0-1 8. Totals 25-51 10-14 71.
MONTANA ST. (11-16)-Egwuonwu 4-10 0-1 8, Colbert 1-2 0-0 2, F. Davis 11-13 7-8 30, Blount 1-5 0-2 2, Moon 4-10 4-4 14, Brumwell 0-1 0-0 0, Dison 0-0 0-0 0, Biglow 2-8 2-2 6, Budinich 1-2 0-0 2, Coleman 2-4 0-0 4. Totals 26-55 13-17 68.
Halftime—Montana 37-27. 3-Point Goals—Montana 11-22 (Gregory 3-4, Coleman 3-5, Weisner 2-5, Henderson 1-2, DeShields 1-3, Jamar 1-3), Montana St. 3-14 (Moon 2-5, F. Davis 1-1, Colbert 0-1, Budinich 0-1, Biglow 0-2, Blount 0-2, Coleman 0-2). Fouled Out—None. Rebounds—Montana 30 (Coleman 6), Montana St. 30 (Egwuonwu 8). Assists—Montana 8 (DeShields 5), Montana St. 9 (F. Davis 3). Total Fouls—Montana 16, Montana St. 14. A—4,571.