Southern Utah was one of the big surprises of the non-conference schedule.
Montana made the Thunderbirds look more like the team that was selected by to finish in last place in the Big Sky Conference in both preseason polls.
After a few minutes of back-and-forth basketball to open the game, the Griz used a smothering defense to beat Southern Utah 79-49 on Saturday in Cedar City, Utah.
“Right now, we’re competing with desperation,” Griz head coach Travis DeCuire told KGVO radio after the game. “That’s kind of been our motto the last four or five games. Our energy, our enthusiasm is at a high level right now. We’re playing together on both sides of the ball.”
The Griz (9-5, 2-0) negated Southern Utah’s potent offense, which entered the game averaging 81.7 points and had scored 99 on Thursday against Montana State. The 49 points allowed are a season low for the Griz and the fewest they’ve given up since North Dakota scored 46 on March 3, 2016.
They held the Thunderbirds (6-7, 0-2) to 26.3 percent shooting and 15 field goals (on 57 attempts), both season lows for a Griz opponent, and 26.7 percent (4 of 15) on 3-pointers, which was well below their averaged of 36.6 percent and 8.9 makes per game. The Thunderbirds were without Brandon Better, who was shooting 39.1 percent on 3-pointers.
The Griz scored 21 points off 15 forced turnovers as they doubled the post, worked around ball screens and rotated well in one-on-one situations, DeCuire said. Southern Utah came into the game averaging 11.4 turnovers per game, which ranked 33rd in Division I.
“Our on-ball coverage is tough for some teams right now,” DeCuire said. “They had a hard time finding open guys. … There were times where guys caught the ball and they thought they were open and someone came flying and then another guy came flying and we never stopped playing. When we scrap like that and hustle like that together, it’s going to be difficult to get shots.”
Southern Utah forward Dwayne Morgan, a UNLV grad transfer playing in his second game, led all scorers with 22 points and grabbed 11 rebounds. Guard Jadon Cohee, who came in averaging a team-high 16.7 points, missed all five shots he took in 21 minutes.
Griz guard Ahmaad Rorie paced Montana with 20 points, forward Jamar Akoh added 12 and guard Mike Oguine chipped in 11. They turned the ball over a season-low six times, and they had 13 assists for their first 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
“We took them out of their zone traps and their pressure pretty early, and they gave up on it,” DeCuire said. “We’re the aggressor right now. If we stay that way, I think we’ll continue to minimize the turnovers.”
The Griz trailed 6-4 early on in what looked like it could be a competitive game. Timmy Falls came off the bench and promptly hit a 3-pointer, which gave Montana the lead for good.
After Southern Utah pulled within 9-8, the Griz went on a 21-2 run. They took their first double-digit lead at 21-10 on a Moorehead banked jumper in the lane. They went up 20 points, 30-10, on a Rorie 3-pointer with 5:52 left in the half.
They built their lead to 25 points, 37-12, and held Southern Utah without a field goal for 12:42 until a Morgan layup trimmed the lead to 37-15. The Thunderbirds missed their first six 3-pointers until Morgan made one with 52 seconds left in the first half.
“As soon as there was a lid on the rim for a little bit, I think they let that affect them for far too long,” Southern Utah head coach Todd Simon said in a news release.
Rorie scored 16 of the Grizzlies’ final 18 points as they took a 39-20 halftime lead. Their lead didn’t dip below 19 points in the second half; Southern Utah’s James McGee hit a 3-pointer to make it 46-27 in the opening minutes.
The Griz took their first 30-point lead on a pair of Bobby Moorehead free throws to go up 62-31 with 10:46 to play. Their lead swelled to 34 points, 79-45, on an Admir Besovic layup with 1:36 remaining.
Montana was outrebounded 42-38, including 15-6 on the offensive glass, but it didn’t make a difference in the outcome.