POCATELLO, Idaho - If there was any doubt about how the Montana men's basketball team was going to fare against struggling Idaho State on Saturday night at Holt Arena, it was erased early.
The Griz forced 16 first-half turnovers on their way to an 18-point lead and cruised to their third Big Sky Conference win in as many outings, 68-44 over the Bengals. It was the fifth straight win for the Griz, who improved to 10-5 overall.
Idaho State won the opening tip and it was all downhill from there. Will Cherry picked off a pass for his first of four steals and converted it into a layup and the Bengals (1-3, 3-12) never caught up.
"We were just outmatched, every position, one through five, all night long," ISU interim coach Deane Martin said. "It didn't matter what you did defensively. ... There's not a lot of secrets to it; everybody in the arena saw it. There's not a lot you can do when you're outmatched at every spot. You can't draw up a lot of things offensively and you can't do a lot of things defensively, so you just have to get through it."
The Bengals were basically playing two-on-five. Senior guards Melvin Morgan and Chase Grabau led the Bengals in scoring with 15 and 14 points, respectively; everyone else combined for 15. The Griz, meanwhile, had all five starters score in double digits: Cherry had 15, Kareem Jamar had 12, Derek Selvig and Mathias Ward had 11, and Art Steward had 10.
"That's nice balance," said Cherry. "You can't key on one guy. It makes it tough for opposing teams."
"I thought it was a really well-balanced effort," added Montana coach Wayne Tinkle, whose club embarked on a stretch in which it will play six of eight games on the road. "There were times when it got ugly, but after such an intense week last week, then a long break, I thought our guys really came out focused, especially in the first half and then late to put it away."
The Griz made six of their first eight shots on their way to a 12-2 lead. Selvig had six of his points in that opening salvo.
The lead reached 16 at 26-10 when Selvig drained a trey and Jamar followed with a pretty spinning move to the basket. The Bengals cut the gap to 30-18 on a layup by Morgan, but the Griz finished out the half with back-to-back treys by Jordan Wood and Cherry to take the 36-18 halftime edge.
"They come out and guard you and if you can't do some basic things you need to do in basketball - if you can't dribble, if you can't pass and you can't catch, it's kind of hard to do a lot of things," Martin said. "I hate to sound sarcastic, but it's reality."
The Bengals were playing their third game of the week. They scored a road breakthrough at Northern Colorado on Monday, then lost at home to Montana State on Thursday.
"I know we'll see a different Idaho State team in Missoula," Tinkle said. "They had a tough week with three games."
The Bengals drew within 13 three times in the second half, the last time at 48-35 on a layup by Grabau with 12:08 to play.
But the Griz responded with a sweet pass from Selvig to Cherry for a backdoor layup and they just stretched their lead from there.
"We were as locked in defensively as we've been in a while," Tinkle said. "We had about three breakdowns that cost us baskets that I can remember. We were dialed into the game plan. We weren't leaving shooters, we were physical, and I was really proud of that."
Cherry set the tone on the defensive end. His four steals moved him from 16th to a tie for 13th on the Big Sky's career list for thefts with 174.
"That's nice," said Cherry, who matched Cal State Northridge's Markus Carr on the Big Sky list. "I have to give credit to my coaches, though. Since I came here my freshman year they gave me the confidence, the leadership and the leeway to roam a lot and get those steals. They allow me to take those chances because they know I'm reliable."
Things will get tougher next week when the Griz travel to Northern Arizona on Thursday, then preseason favorite Weber State on Saturday. Weber moved to 4-0 in league with an 88-81 win at Portland State on Saturday, completing a road sweep that began at Eastern Washington.
"The thing is we can't get a false sense of security from this one," Tinkle said. "It was sloppy at times, but our guys can recall the focus and energy it took at the start of the game to put ourselves in position."