RENO, Nev. — Locked in a tight, tense struggle with injury-depleted North Dakota, heavily-favored Montana leaned on its senior.
Fabijan Krslovic's back-to-back buckets gave the Grizzlies some breathing room in the final 3 minutes and they pulled out an 84-76 win Thursday in a Big Sky Conference basketball tourney quarterfinal at the Reno Events Center.
Top-seeded Montana (24-7) will play in a semifinal on Friday at 6:30 p.m. against fifth-seeded Northern Colorado, which routed Weber State 80-55. Defending Big Sky tourney champion North Dakota bowed out at 12-20.
Montana coach Travis DeCuire said afterwards his team was a little tight early in the loser-out situation. The Grizzlies' usual intensity was absent and they were making defensive errors they do not normally make.
But both teams shot the ball well in the first half, playing to a 42-42 tie. There were 10 lead changes.
Sixth-year senior Dale Jones, a transfer from the University of Iowa, had the first half of his life for UND with six 3-point goals and 22 points. The Hawks were 16 for 33 from the floor and the Grizzlies 17 for 32 at the half, led by Mike Oguine with 15 points.
"We told the guys at halftime let's not get down on each other. We'll figure it out second half," said Oguine, whose total of 23 points was second on the team to Ahmaad Rorie with a career-high 30. "I thought we did a good job of that.
"Credit to North Dakota. They didn't go away. They fought hard. But this team, we have a lot of experience. We have guys that have great chemistry."
Playing without starting forward Conner Avants, who injured his groin in Tuesday's win over Montana State, the Hawks showed persistence. They trailed by just two, 74-72, with under 3 minutes to play.
Rorie recalled a conversation he had with Krslovic around that time.
"It was funny because we were at the free-throw line on the other end and I told him that he was a mismatch for them," Rorie shared. "They weren't really contesting his shots. I told him go up strong and he was like, 'I gotcha.' We were only up two and he gave us those two buckets to go up six and we had the momentum."
Krslovic sank a pivotal lefty layup with 2:57 left to give his team a 76-72 lead. Just over a minute later, he made the score 78-72 on a jumper.
Sayeed Pridgett then delivered on the other end with steal at 1:31 and Montana found a comfort zone.
"Two things," DeCuire said in describing the final three minutes. "I think the pressure (Rorie and Oguine) put on them defensively, they worked so hard to get stops.
"Secondly, they were making tough shots all day long. The entire first half, most of the second half — contested, fade-aways, threes they didn't typically make. But percentages catch up most of the time. We just stuck to the script, kept playing defense the right way, took away the shots we knew they would make and it worked out for us."
DeCuire made a key defensive tweak at halftime. Jones managed just two points in the second half.
"Coach Trav made an adjustment to put Mike on (Jones)," Rorie said. "We're first in the Big Sky because we play harder than everybody so we just tried to do that in the second half and we just grinded it out."
When the Griz play Friday, they will be looking for bigger contributions from Jamar Akoh and Bobby Moorehead. Akoh finished with two points and Moorehead one.
"I think he just got off to a slow start," DeCuire said of Akoh. "They were running us around a little bit defensively in the first half and I think maybe he wore down ... I have a tendency to go with the hot hand and Fab was the guy today. Jamar should be well-rested (Friday)."
Thursday marked North Dakota's final game in the Big Sky. The Hawks will play in the Summit League next season.
“We had nothing to lose, honestly,” said UND’s Geno Crandall, who finished with 17 points and seven assists. “We came out loose and had an excellent game plan. If it was the end of the season, we wanted to go down fighting. We wanted to go down swinging.”