MISSOULA — The Montana Grizzlies have played a couple teams this season that head coach Travis DeCuire said resembled a potential NCAA tournament squad.
That included UC Irvine on Tuesday, and the Griz took a step toward playing like a tournament-level team in front of their largest crowd of the season, beating the Anteaters, 86-68, at Dahlberg Arena.
“I think that’s as well as we’ve played in a long time,” DeCuire said. “For us to go out and be that explosive offensively and have our leading scorer (Ahmaad Rorie) not make a lot of shots and Bobby Moorehead not get in double figures, if you would have told me ahead of time that was going to happen, I wouldn’t have believed you.
“I think it was a sign of growth. But the biggest thing for us is how we defended and how we were able to execute on the defensive side of the ball because if you can do that every night, you can give yourself a chance to win no matter who you play.”
The Griz (7-4) put together arguably their most complete game of the season. They went to their bench and got 30 points, including a career-high 14 from Timmy Falls. He connected on all four 3-pointers he attempted in a season-high 22 minutes.
Sayeed Pridgett and Karl Nicholas added eight points each off the bench.
"That’s been the missing link for us that where we’ve subbed, teams have made runs and we don’t score or whatever," DeCuire said. "This was the first time in a while, actually the last two games, where we’ve gone to the bench and we’ve made runs. By doing that and not playing guys 38, 37, 36 minutes, which means we’re rested for the stretch run."
Their defensive pressure led to 19 points off of 15 turnovers. They also forced three shot-clock violations and two 10-second calls bringing the ball up the court.
They were aggressive on the boards and finished with a 37-29 edge, including 15-10 on the offensive glass. UC Irvine (4-10) came in with a rebounding edge of plus-7.5.
"Tonight was the longest stretches I’ve seen this team execute with five bodies in the right places and playing hard at the same time," DeCuire said.
The Griz weren’t afraid to get the ball into the post early against Irvine’s size, and forward Jamar Akoh scored seven of Montana’s first 11 points. He finished with a career-high 23 points and seven rebounds, and he did it without picking up his first foul until there was 14:11 to play.
"I was aggressive," Akoh said. "My teammates got me the ball in good places. Right spot, right time."
Montana was selective with its 3-pointers and made 7 of 15 for a season-high 46.7 percent. The Griz shot 52.5 percent from the floor and got 30 points from their bench.
The biggest struggle was at the free-throw line, where the team went 15 of 25, which proved inconsequential.
The Griz built a 10-point halftime lead despite just two points from Rorie and four from Oguine, the team’s leading scorers entering the game. Oguine spent the final 8:52 of the first half on the bench after he picked up his second foul with the Griz up 16-14.
That led to more minutes for Falls, who hit two quick 3-pointers. His second put the Griz up 29-18 and they closed the half on a 23-15 run to build a 39-29 lead.
“The key for me was being confident on the court,” Falls said. “After I hit my second 3, I knew that I was going to have a good game.”
After UC Irvine cut the Grizzlies’ lead to 41-33 with 17:58 to play, the Griz ripped off an 11-0 run with seven points from Oguine and four from Rorie. Oguine threw down a dunk after a backcourt steal to put the Griz up 52-33.
“Coach Cobb and coach Trav, they joked with me at half that now you’re going to be fresh for the second half,” said Oguine, who scored 12 of his 16 points in 19 second-half minutes after he played just seven minutes in the first half. “So I said I might as well go and give everything I have the second half … and leave it on the floor.”
The Griz took their first 20-point lead, 55-35, on a Falls 3-pointer with 13:55 to play. They built their lead as big as 23 points, 62-39 and later at 71-48, the second of which came on a Falls 3-pointer with 5:30 to play.
UC Irvine made 15 of 21 free throws in the second half but didn’t get any closer than 15 points, 83-68.