MISSOULA — Montana head coach Travis DeCuire has wanted to see how his team handles adversity after starting conference play with three blowouts. The Griz fought through that adversity Saturday, even though some of it was self-inflicted.
Freshman guard Timmy Falls and Northern Colorado's Ibrahim Sylla got tangled up under the basket, and Sylla appeared to shove Falls to the ground with 13 minutes to play. Falls got called for personal foul, and Jamar Akoh got a technical foul and Karl Nicholas and Sylla had double technical fouls called after there appeared to be some shoving.
Northern Colorado made 3 of 4 free throws resulting from the fouls as part of a 12-0 run. The Griz led by as many as 21 points, 59-38, before that run cut their lead to 59-50.
The Bears got as close as six points, 83-77, but Montana held them off for an 89-80 win at Dahlberg Arena.
"We talked about how it's not always going to be easy," DeCuire said. "At some point, someone is going to give you something you have to adjust to. How are we going to respond? Who are we? I think we showed signs of a team that will fight to the end regardless of what's going on?"
Akoh scored a career-high 34 points — the most since Anthony Johnson scored 42 in the 2010 Big Sky championship win over Weber State. He added eight rebounds, three assists and two blocks. In the opening minutes, he drew a charge to help set the tone.
"I wasn't really feeling in any sort of zone," Akoh said. "I was just playing basketball. If they helped, I dropped (the ball) off to my teammates or kicked it out."
"He demanded the ball," DeCuire said. "He owned the moment. It's hard to find guys who can do that."
The 6-foot-8 forward finished 11 of 16 from the field and 12 of 16 at the free-throw line; the Griz were 28 of 33 at the free-throw line. He scored 18 points in the first half and added 16 in the second half while being guarded one on one.
Akoh expected a double-team but it never came. UNC head coach Jeff Linder said he wasn't going to double-team Akoh because it would leave 3-point shooters open.
"He did a good job of getting deep catches on us, which negated our length," Linder said. "Jamar's not the tallest guy, but he's a big body. When you get that deep, Tanner Morgan — who's a good post defender — struggled. That's where you pick your poison. We decided we'd try to let him beat us."
Akoh's dominance down low helped Montana gain a 46-16 advantage in points in the paint.
The Griz scored 21 points off of 15 forced turnovers. Northern Colorado came in averaging just 12.2 turnovers committed per game.
The Golden Bears stayed in the game by making 14 of 26 3-pointers (53.8 percent), including six from Andre Spight and five from Jonah Radebaugh. No team had made more than eight 3-pointers against the Griz and only one had shot over 50 percent.
The Griz led 59-38 after an Akoh layup, but Spight hit a 3-pointer to start a 12-0 UNC run. After the review of several minutes that led to multiple fouls, Sylla made a free throw, Spight hits two free throws and a 3-pointer, and Jordan Davis made three free throws after he was fouled.
The Grizzlies’ lead was cut to 59-50, but they ended their drought when Akoh scored a basket in the lane and another on a fast break layup for a 4-0 spurt. Ahmaad Rorie scored 12 of his 14 second-half points after that and went 8 of 8 at the free-throw line.
"The main thing for me was to stay aggressive even though I didn't shoot it well," Rorie said. "We were setting high ball screens, so I was getting around that or staying aggressive going to the rim."
Montana’s lead was trimmed to single digits at 71-62 on an and-1 conversion by Roberto Vercellino. After Davis hit a 3-pointer to cut Montana's lead to 73-67 with 6:23 to play, Akoh hit two free throws and Rorie made a layup to push it back to 10.
Radebaugh drained a 3-pointer with 2:04 to play to get UNC within 83-77, and Akoh and Rorie combined for six free throws to close out the game.
"We needed that adversity," Akoh said. "We've been blowing people out, so there's hasn't been a lot of adversity for us. I'm glad we were able to handle the challenge."