MISSOULA — Grizzlies are known to hibernate during the winter, but it was the UC Riverside Highlanders who were nowhere to be found most of Sunday afternoon at Dahlberg Arena.
After a lock-down first half, the Montana men’s basketball team (6-4) suffocated UC Riverside (3-7) with a 17-0 run in the second half, which put the game out of reach as the Griz rode their strong defensive start to a 77-61 win.
“We were active, flying around, in the right spots and played good team defense,” said junior guard Ahmaad Rorie, who led all players with 22 points as Montana shot 50 percent from the field.
Defense has been the Grizzlies’ calling card this season as they battle through offensive inconsistency. For the first 32 minutes of the game, they were all over UC Riverside and played some of their best defense over extended stretches all season.
The Griz led 33-21 at the half, upped their lead to 50-23 and led by as many as 29 points. They limited the Highlanders’ three leading scorers, who entered averaging a combined 34.3 points, to nine total points.
They owned the paint and posted a 40-23 rebounding edge, including 22-9 in the second half. They were active deflecting balls and forced 16 turnovers and had seven steals. They rotated quickly and limited UC Riverside to 38.5 percent from the field and 29.4 percent on 3-pointers, the latter of which has been a trouble area for the Griz.
“I thought tonight we did a phenomenal job,” Griz head coach Travis DeCuire said of the 3-point defense.
Forward Jamar Akoh scored 17 points and grabbed 12 rebounds, both season highs, and made all nine free-throw attempts. He picked up four fouls but still played 33 minutes, adding two blocks, two assists and one steal.
“When I come in and I have a sweat and I’m ready to go and I make things happen early, I think my team feeds off of it as well,” Akoh said. “That kind of gets us all going and it gets me going as well.”
Griz guard Mike Oguine had a team-high three blocks to go with 12 points and five rebounds.
The Griz got off to their best start of the season, jumping up 9-0 and holding UC Riverside scoreless for the first 5:22 on 0-of-7 shooting. They limited the Highlanders to 30.8 percent shooting (8 of 26) and forced seven turnovers in the opening 20 minutes.
Montana lead by as many as 14 points in the first half and shot 47.8 percent (11 of 23) despite making just 3 of 12 3-point attempts. The 21 points it allowed that half are the fewest the Griz allowed in any half this season, and the 12-point advantage is their biggest halftime lead this season.
After UC Riverside scored the opening basket of the second half, Montana ripped off a 17-0 run — including a Bobby Moorehead 6-0 personal run on a 3-pointer, steal and and-1 conversion in 18 seconds — to go up 50-23.
The Griz built their lead as big as 61-32 with 8:13 to play before UC Riverside closed on a 29-16 run and got as close as 73-60. The Highlanders got back into the game against some Montana subs and uncommon lineup combinations, which forced DeCuire to go back to his starters to close the game.
“There’s some guys that just lost their intensity when they saw the score,” DeCuire said. “There’s a maturity that comes with that. It’s difficult, but we got to get used to being in that situation.”