MISSOULA — Montana senior Fabijan Krslovic twice called the Grizzlies' overtime victory against Sacramento State “a bit of a wake-up call” as he stood near the center-court logo after the 71-69 win.
The Griz had just played their third tight matchup in four games, going back to their road trip at Northern Colorado, where they had to rely on different scoring options than they were used to. They then had to grind out a five-point win over North Dakota, the first time in 11 conference games that they scored fewer points in the second half than they did in the first half, which happened again Saturday.
But they were in control the majority of both games. And they’ve been the aggressor in the second halves of games, making runs out of the locker room and facing a deficit for just 9:49 through 12 games.
Saturday, they trailed or were tied for the final 15:44 of regulation and the opening 2:22 of overtime. They came up with clutch defensive plays, improved their rebounding throughout the game and made enough free throws to overcome the 38.1 percent they shot from the field, their worst percentage in a win, to improve to 13-0 in Big Sky Conference play.
“I think we’ve had an aura of invincibility about us in thinking ‘We’re going to be fine. We’ll walk out of here with a win,’” Krslovic said. “I think the last couple of games we might have made them a bit tough. Last week, we had some close games at the end, but we never really were threatened like we were tonight. I think that’s going to be good for us going forward to know that we could have very easily lost this game.”
The timing of such a game was optimal for head coach Travis DeCuire. The Griz close out their season against teams that are second, third, fourth, sixth and seventh in the conference standings with a combined record of 38-23 in league play.
They hit the road for the final time, traveling to Eastern Washington on Thursday and Idaho on Saturday. Four teams have made that trip so far — Northern Colorado, North Dakota, Portland State and Sacramento State — but none have swept it.
When the Griz swept the trip last season, it was the first time a Montana team had done so since DeCuire was a senior in 1994, and the first time any Big Sky team had won both games since Idaho rejoined the conference in 2014.
The Griz then return home to host a struggling Montana State team — but a rival nonetheless. They close out the season by welcoming a surging Weber State team and a middling Idaho State squad.
“Based on what we have coming up, I think it was great for us to have a tight game right now, play from behind right now because you’re probably going to have to do it again,” DeCuire said. “Then you’re going to find yourself in the Big Sky tournament, and at that point, everybody’s playing with nothing to lose, and they’re going to probably raise the bar. If adversity is going to hit us at any point in time, I’d prefer it to be in February.”
Junior guard Mike Oguine, who scored a game-high 25 points, recognized the importance of how a game like Saturday’s could help the Griz if they find themselves in a similar situation in the conference tournament, which they’d have to win to earn a berth into the NCAA tournament.
They secured a top-four seed and first-round bye in the conference tournament with Saturday’s win.
“A lot of the games, like 25-point wins, you don’t learn as much as you do from these kind of games,” Oguine said. “That’s what the conference tournament is going to be like. They’re going to give us their best effort. We might be down early on, and how we respond is going to be huge. We learned a lot (about how we respond) from this game tonight.”