MISSOULA — The Montana Grizzlies are used to being the hunted.
It’s not uncommon for them to have a target on their back during league play. As one of the perennial contenders in the Big Sky Conference, they’re used to getting every team’s best effort on a nightly basis.
That has intensified this season as they continue to string wins together. They’re ranked No. 16 in the latest Mid-Major Top-25 Poll, have won their first nine conference games and have opened up a 2.5-game lead over Weber State in the race for the regular-season title and top seed in the league tournament. It's their second-best start in the program's 55 years in the Big Sky, chasing the 2012-13 team that started 12-0.
“We’re not going to catch any team on an off night,” Griz senior Fabijan Krslovic said. “We have to match that and we can’t afford to let a game slip here or there. It’s something we can’t relax on — ever.
“It’s something a lot of us are used to, and we have to keep instilling that mentality into the younger guys.”
The Griz know what they’ve done means nothing if they falter going forward.
They’ll have to go through the tougher half of their schedule over the next month. In their first nine league games, they faced only two teams with winning records — Northern Colorado and Montana State are both 5-4 — but they’ve dominated the competition and lead all Big Sky teams in 10 statistical categories.
“The last couple weeks, every Monday, Tuesday, we work, we look at stuff we need to get better at on film,” Krslovic said. “Coaches point out some weaknesses and they’re pretty glaring. We know we’re nowhere near to reaching our full potential.”
Montana coach Travis said during his weekly radio show Tuesday that the team’s Achilles’ heel is probably finishing off possessions.
The Grizzlies’ back-loaded schedule starts at 7 p.m. Thursday with a road trip to Northern Colorado before heading to North Dakota for 3 p.m. Saturday tip, one of the more difficult trips because of travel. They then return home to face Sacramento State and Portland State for the second time.
After that, they get into the most challenging stretch of their schedule. They will close with a road trip to Eastern Washington and Idaho, and return home to host Montana State, Weber State and Idaho State. All five of those teams have a winning record and feature a combined conference mark of 27-16.
“I feel like we’re in a good spot, in a good rhythm right now,” Griz junior Mike Oguine said. “It’s kind of hard to take a step back and reflect on what you’ve done, but I think that’s important sometimes. We’re at the halfway mark, we have to realize that we have to keep it up, look at the things we did to be successful, try to continue that.
“But there’s also a lot of room for growth. We know that there are teams we haven’t played yet and they’re going to give us their all. We have to keep it up to replicate this the second half of the season.”
Montana, Northern Colorado set for big-time rematch
The Griz (16-5, 9-0) and Bears (14-8, 5-4) square off in a matchup of two of the top three offenses during conference play. Montana is averaging 83.8 points per game, and Northern Colorado is at 80 points on average.
Montana, however, boasts the top scoring defense (66.1) while the Bears are 11.2 points worse. The Grizzlies’ defense has traveled well, and they’re 5-0 on the road in league play. Northern Colorado is 4-1 at home with wins over Eastern Washington and Idaho, and a four-point loss to Weber State.
When Montana and Northern Colorado met on Jan. 6 in Missoula, the Griz had to overcome adversity for the first time in four conference games. They led by 21 points, but UNC’s six-point play because of technical fouls helped in a 12-0 run that cut the Grizzlies’ lead to nine points. They didn’t allow the Bears to get any closer than six points in the 89-80 win.
Playing his fourth league game at the time, Montana redshirt junior forward Jamar Akoh scored a career-high 34 points. The Bears refused to double team him because UNC head coach Jeff Linder said that’s not his style.
Montana survived despite having one of its worst nights defending the 3-point line that game. The Bears made 14 of 26 3-pointers; Andre Spight was 6 of 12, and Jonah Radebaugh converted on 5 of 6 attempts.
The Bears’ 9.1 3-pointers per game — on 37.6 percent shooting — are the most in league play. Spight’s 3.1 makes per game rank 31st in the nation. However, the Griz have the top 3-point field-goal defense at 32.9 percent, allowing 6.2 makes per game.