MISSOULA — Fabijan Krslovic spent too much time on the stationary bike.
During his freshman year, the Montana Grizzlies’ forward tried to play through a hip pointer in the Big Sky tournament championship in Missoula. But the pain limited him to 12 minutes, and his defensive presence was missed in a 69-65 loss to Eastern Washington with a trip to the NCAA tournament on the line.
“I honestly believe that if he didn’t get hurt in the semifinals and could play more than 15 minutes, we would have went to the NCAA tournament,” said Travis DeCuire, who was in his first year as Montana’s head coach at the time. “Most guys wouldn’t even have tried to play in the championship game.”
The Griz were again 40 minutes away from making the Big Dance the next year as the league tournament moved to Reno, Nevada. Bobby Moorehead made a 3-pointer to pull the Griz within 60-59 of Weber State with 2:33 to play, but they missed their final four shots from the field and one free-throw attempt in a 62-59 loss.
After struggling last season and being eliminated in the quarterfinals, the veteran Griz are primed to make their run to the program’s first NCAA tournament since 2013.
Picked to finish third in the preseason coaches’ poll, they earned the top seed and will open the tournament against eighth-seeded North Dakota, the defending champion, at 1 p.m. MT Thursday in a quarterfinal at Reno Events Center.
Montana will need to win three games in three days to capture the tournament title and automatically qualify for the NCAA tournament.
As the regular-season champion, the Griz have already earned a berth in the NIT tournament should they fail to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
Krslovic, who came to Montana from Australia because of the chance to play in the Big Dance, recalled feeling “bummed” he couldn’t help the team more in the title game his freshman year. Three years later, this is his final chance to make his postseason dream a reality.
“It’d be the icing on top of an incredible four years here,” he said during the past homestand.
The Griz have excelled with a shut-down defense, defined roles and consistency. They’re one of two Division I teams to start the same five players every game this season.
Mike Oguine was named the conference’s defensive player of the year and made the all-conference second-team earlier this week. Ahmaad Rorie earned a first-team nod, while Jamar Akoh earned third-team recognition.
Unlike past years, the Griz have depth, versatility and other scoring options in Sayeed Pridgett, Moorehead and Krslovic, who’ve shown flashes to take over a game if needed.
“Ever since we lost last year, you just think about Reno,” Oguine said after the regular-season finale against Idaho State. “Season ended, spring, summer came through, all we could think about was Reno and getting it done. I can’t speak for my teammates; I’m sure it’s the same way.
“I’ve just dreamed about winning three in a row ever since last season ended. We’re going to have a chance. I feel like we’re in a great position, much better than last year in terms of heading into Reno with momentum. We’re playing the right way. Guys are really locked in. Everyone’s buying in.”
The Griz posted their first undefeated home record (14-0) since 1992, but they’ve gone 9-7 away from Missoula, including 8-4 against mid-majors. They won a school-record seven consecutive road games to start conference play before they lost at Eastern Washington and Idaho in mid-February.
Thursday’s game will be the first-ever meeting in the tournament between Montana and North Dakota, which is leaving the conference for the Summit League in 2018-19. Geno Crandall leads the Fighting Hawks’ offense and was named to the All-Big Sky second team.
North Dakota erased a 19-point deficit in the final 11 minutes against Montana State and got a career-high 29 points from Marlon Stewart to win its first-round matchup on Tuesday.
The Griz went 2-0 against North Dakota during the regular season. They won 109-79 at home and had to grind out a 72-67 road win as the Fighting Hawks tried to slow down the game and deny shots for Ahmaad Rorie and Mike Oguine.
Akoh, a Cal State Fullerton transfer, recorded a double-double in both games. He had transferred because he saw the potential to win a championship, and while the Griz have already won one title, they need to prove themselves again.
“This is what it’s about,” the 6-foot-8 forward said after Monday’s practice. “This is the one that you want. An opportunity to go to the Big Dance, I think we’ll be focused.
“That championship we just won can almost mean nothing. We just won a couple games here and there. This is the big one. You’ve got to win three in a row. This is the one everybody’s trying to win to get to that Big Dance. This is the real thing.”