MISSOULA — Call this one The Great Escape.
Montana overcame miserable shooting at the start and unusually sloppy ballhandling toward the end, but still hung on for a 53-50 men’s basketball win over Montana State on Monday night at Dahlberg Arena.
The Grizzlies’ eighth straight win over the Cats in their 289th meeting pushed Montana’s Big Sky Conference mark to 11-7 (16-11 overall), good for a tie for second place with North Dakota with two games remaining. Montana State fell to 9-9, 14-15, but is still right in the thick of the postseason race in the bunched standings.
The Griz missed 14 of their first 18 shots, including 11 of 13 from 3-point range, while falling behind 20-12 against the slow-paced Bobcats. On top of that, leading scorer and reigning league MVP Kareem Jamar went to the bench with zero points and his second foul with 4:31 to play before intermission.
“It was ugly because we were missing wide-open shots,” said Montana coach Wayne Tinkle, who improved to 13-4 against the Cats. “If we were hitting shots we normally make, we jump out and get a nice lead. The thing was to stay patient.”
A funny thing happened with Jamar on the bench – the Griz rallied to a 26-23 lead at halftime. Keron DeShields had six points during an 8-0 run that tied the game at 20-20. He had a layup, a drive and hit a 16-foot jumper during that stretch.
A three-point play by Jordan Gregory, who tied DeShields for team-high scoring honors with 13, gave the Griz a 23-21 lead, before Flavien Davis hit two free throws with 3.9 seconds left in the half. The Griz inbounded the ball to DeShields on the run. He stopped about 30 feet from the basket and launched a shot that swished home at the buzzer.
“The critical stretch, obviously, was the last four minutes of the first half,” Montana State coach Brad Huse said. “We missed a couple of free throws and Kareem went out of the game. It changed up how we defended a little bit and they converted some buckets and took the lead on the big shot at the end of the half. A couple of things didn’t go our way that last couple of minutes and that kind of defined where we were heading. Then after the first bit of the second half we were playing catch-up.”
Montana held the Cats to six points in the first eight minutes after intermission while bolting to a 42-29 lead. Jamar, who finished eight points — 11 points below his average — hit a bucket inside to give the Griz the 13-point lead.
The shots that weren’t going in during the first half, began to find their mark in the second. Gregory, Mario Dunn and Mike Weisner hit treys as the Griz lead grew.
“We told our guys by them using clock it’s going to allow us to rest defensively,” Tinkle said. “We just said you really have to focus the last 10-12 seconds of the possession. … We knew the shots were going to go in eventually and we were going to be fresh because of the pace of play.”
MSU guard Michael Dison came off the bench to score eight points in a 10-0 run that made a game of it again, cutting the Griz lead to 42-39 with 8:24 to play.
The closest the Cats got was within two twice, the first at 48-46 with 2:34 to play on a bucket from center Paul Egwuonwu, who tied Davis for the team high with 14 points.
Jamar made his second straight bucket to stretch the margin to 50-46, but Davis followed up his own miss to get MSU within 50-48 with 1:58 left.
With the shot clock in single digits, Jamar started to drive to the hoop, but kicked the ball out to Weisner in the corner. Weisner, as he has so many times against the Cats, drained the 3-pointer.
“The defense really collapsed on Kareem and Kareem was really unselfish and passed me the ball,” Weisner said. “I think I had missed a couple in a row to that point. But my teammates had my back and gave me the ball and I was able to knock it down.”
It was the opposite corner from where Weisner hit a trey that sent the game to overtime the last time the teams played in Missoula.
“That was big time,” Jamar said. “I flashed in the middle, caught it and faced up. I drove it and they collapsed on me and Mike was in the corner. I’ll go to him 10 out of 10 times. I’m proud he hit the shot.”
Egwuonwu cut the gap to 53-50 with a put-back with 1:06 to play. The Griz worked some clock before Jamar missed on a drive, but Weisner tipped the ball out and the Griz had a fresh shot clock.
Montana State, though, stripped DeShields to get the ball back. Out of timeouts, the Cats looked for a tying 3-pointer, but Dison’s shot at the buzzer was off the mark.
The escape was complete.
“He’s a gutsy player,” Huse said of Weisner, who had a pair of big treys in Montana’s 70-66 win in Bozeman earlier this season. “He always seems to hit big shots. He seems to me to be the kind of guy who always thinks the next one’s going in.”
The Griz have little time to savor the win over their rivals. They fly to Sacramento on Wednesday to face Sac State on Thursday, then fly to Phoenix and bus to Flagstaff for a game at Northern Arizona on Saturday afternoon. Even being tied for second place with two to play hasn’t guaranteed the Griz a spot in the seven-team postseason tournament.
“We have two games,” Jamar said. “We look at it like we’re 0-0 and we need these two games, then we’ll see where we’re at come tourney time.”
NOTES: The win cut MSU’s lead in the all-time series to 147-142. … MSU won the rebounding battle 29-25. Davis and Egwuonwu led the Cats with six apiece; DeShields led the Griz with eight. … The Cats did not hit a 3-pointer, finishing 0 for 7. The Griz were 7 of 24 from distance.