RENO, Nev. — With streamers floating down and players jumping around in a joyous maroon mob, Montana celebrated its first Big Sky Conference men's basketball tourney title in five years.
The Grizzlies' don't-let-em-breathe man defense and hot shooting in the second half propelled them past Eastern Washington Saturday in a nationally-televised championship game, 82-65, at the Reno Events Center. Montana moved to 26-7 and is just one win shy of the all-time team single-season record.
Junior guard Michael Oguine led the Grizzlies with 21 points, 18 coming after intermission. He was named tournament MVP, yet it was the Grizzlies' collective defensive effort in the second half that keyed the breakthrough win over the Eagles (20-13).
During one particularly impressive stretch after halftime, Montana made 18 stops in 19 Eastern Washington possessions.
"We came from behind three straight days," said Montana coach Travis DeCuire, whose team trailed 40-29 at the break. "We fought through adversity. We believed in each other and fought for each other.
"The next thing for us was to convince these guys that defense wins championships ... Today you saw that. You saw a group slow down a very explosive team ... For us to hold them to 36 percent in the second half and outscore them by 28 points, that's defense."
UM came out aggressively in the first half, using its pressure defense to rattle Eastern and build a 17-12 lead behind five points by Bobby Moorehead. The intensity dropped off a bit late in the half and the Eagles pounced, putting together a 17-4 run.
Freshman Jacob Davison was especially hard on the Grizzlies in the first half. He hit 4 of 5 shots for 11 points.
Little did anyone guess Montana would outscore Eastern Washington 53-25 in the second half. Or that the Eagles' go-to player, league MVP Bogdan Bliznyuk, would be held to 15 total points.
"We knew that defense was what we hang our hat on and we did a great job of that," Oguine said. "First half they were making a lot of shots. We had to make adjustments. Myself personally, I was really flat. We started getting stops and I started getting into a rhythm and it was big-time for us."
Oguine was one of four Grizzlies to score in double figures. Ahmaad Rorie scored 15 points, Moorehead 12 and Fabijan Krslovic 11 to go with his 10 rebounds.
Rorie was named to the all-tourney team and was perhaps just as worthy of MVP honors as Oguine after the way he played defense against Bliznyuk in the second half.
"It was an emotional game," Rorie said. "... We didn't want to play in the NIT, you know. For us to be down 11 and just fight back, I felt like it was going to start with me and Mike (Oguine) pressuring the ball."
Afterwards, senior Fabijan Krslovic couldn't help but reflect on a conversation he had with DeCuire last March. Back when the Grizzlies were eliminated in the first round by Idaho.
"I was the only one left in the locker room and Trav came in and said, 'Fab, I promise you, this time next year we're going to be cutting down nets. We're going to be going to the NCAA tournament,' Krslovic shared. "That's been our focus all year."
DeCuire put into perspective what this season has meant to him in a heartfelt post-game press conference. A lot went through his mind as his team celebrated in front of a frenzied group of loyal Griz fans, including his fallen friend.
"It's been a hard year for me," he offered. "Emotionally going into the year you know I lose a very close friend (Delvon Anderson) who I've played in the NCAA tournament with. We dedicated this season to him. Sometimes when you do that you put a little pressure on yourself to be successful.
"I wanted this for Delvon Anderson as much as I wanted it for anyone because I believe that what we call the tradition of Montana, he plays as much of an important role as any player that has ever put on this jersey. The heart and passion he played with is what I search for in every man I recruit. It's been a long journey. I had big shoes to fill when I came here."
First-year Eastern coach Shantay Legins blamed himself for what happened in the second half. His team shot 11 for 29 from the floor over the course of the final 20 minutes. Montana was 17 for 27.
"I did a bad job getting those guys prepared for the second half," he said. "I could have done some things a lot differently. I'm going to look at myself the rest of the summer and wonder what could have been.
"Travis (DeCuire) and Montana earned that win. They came out and played well in the second half and deserved the (NCAA) bid. They were the better team."
Joining Rorie on the all-tourney team were Bliznyuk, Northern Colorado's Andre Spight and Jordan Davis, and Southern Utah's Brandon Better. On Sunday night Montana will find out where, when and who it will play in the the NCAA tournament later this week.