Good guys end up on right side of rivalry game

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It seems it can't get more dramatic than an Eastern Washington matchup in about any sport and while from the Grizzly standpoint it is a game between adversaries separated by a few hours and 200 miles, yet for the Eagles it has developed into a what could be described bitter rivalry.

Montana has one of those but in the opposite direction down the same Interstate that has history dating back to 1897.

Now truth be known most everyone knows I am an Eastern guy but being from Spokane I also have been a Cougar as long as I can remember.

Truth be known I relish the fact that the Eagles have recently risen to prominence, have chosen to emulate some things that we do right in Missoula, and are competitive even at times on the National stage.

And if Montana chooses to minimize whether it is indeed a rivalry, so be it. It is semantics and one has to admit there just is a little extra when it comes to an Eagle-Grizzly game.

Heck I even think the red turf was brilliant and served to bring national attention to an institution that wouldn't certainly be otherwise mentioned; and face it Griz Nation, few can dispute the athletic talent EWU has had on several occasions.

I have always subscribed to the theory that few ideas are novel - just the way they are carried out - and utilization of another's best is a compliment.

Now that I have your attention suffice it to say that after the disappointment of another extra periods loss in Moscow two nights earlier, all the marbles were on the table Saturday night for Montana and the heavily favored Eagles stood to take a giant step toward securing the host spot for the Big Sky Conference Tournament.

The Missoulian's Bob Meseroll described it as the best student section of the season and while I sat across from the tumult I'd have to agree. They were creative from the get-go and on this first day of March made the afternoon a precursor to the eventuality of madness two weeks hence.

As if added motivation was required, some was made about the Grizzlies being advised to leave the floor to the locker room from their bench rather than trying to exit across the floor after the Eagle fans rushed the floor after a predicted win.

But I am going to say that after recent spats between teams and fans during post-game celebrations, I'll give the Eagles a pass believing they were more interested in safety than making a statement about what they must have believed was an obvious eventual positive outcome. 

Suffice it to say that after what I was a part of at Sacramento State when chaos ensued after the final claxon, I can personally attest that while I really remain a fan of the spontaneity that makes college basketball one of my deepest joys, court storming has become dangerous and unless some control is exercised a serious scenario accompanied by injury will ensue.

With plenty yet left on the table, this season's games have been a joy and with the circuit's parity the league tournament promises more of the same.

And wouldn't it be magical if the stars aligned and brought even additional men's hoop to add to the women's spectacle at Dahlberg Arena?

But with the way the Grizzlies perform on the post-season floor of the other league entities with titles in places like Flagstaff, Boise, Portland, Ogden and Bozeman, play on men and let the chips fall. 

A battle on the Palouse

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Given that the University of Idaho just defeated co-Big Sky Conference leader Sacramento State on Valentine's Day, the Grizzlies should need no added motivation to be stoked for the upset-minded Vandals Thursday night in Moscow.

The Vandals looked like they had righted a sloping ship when they lost only to Eastern Washington twice by three points with one of the contests needing overtime to resolve.

But after defeating Portland State and the Hornets after being blitzed in Missoula by the Grizzlies, Idaho dropped a pair to Northern Arizona and Southern Utah and now are fighting for their post-season tournament existence with a 6-8 league mark and Weber State hot on their heals.

And after hosting the Montana schools this week they finish at Weber and Idaho State.

But the Vandals have won nine of a dozen in Moscow and five of seven circuit matchups but this is the first time this season they are hosting league games in Memorial Gym which isn't exactly a neutral but it isn't the friendly confines of the expansive Kibbie Dome either.

It promises to be a battle of wills with Travis DeCuire's charge intending to slow down the high scoring Vandal attack which boasts the second highest scoring average against the Grizzlies' top defense.

Connor Hill has established himself as the most productive three-point shooter in Idaho history and with 88 treys this season is closing in on the school's single-season mark as well.

And point guard Mike Scott is a double-threat veteran averaging in double figures, one of three in the starting lineup, and almost six dimes an outing. 

Can Montana match Idaho on the boards like they did in a 14-point victory in Missoula?

Arkadiy Mkrtychyan comes off the bench for five a game in the category paced by Bira Seck with 7.4 an outing.

The Grizzlies held that duo to nine the first time around and outrebounded Idaho by one while also holding them to 24 first-half points in prevailing 70-58.

Scott paces the league in the all-important assist to turnover category while the Vandals are second in the nation in three-point proficiency while also shooting 47percent.

It is all out there for this surprising Montana team and coming off a road sweep and a quartet of road breakthroughs it's not like they haven't been there before.

Photo finish in the Big Sky

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Who plays whom and where will the unexpected occur? 

It really is a four-horse race to see which team wins the regular season and the right to the host spot the eight-team Big Sky Conference Tournament.

Ten-win upstart Northern Arizona, which has won four of six road games, travels to nothing-to-lose North Dakota Thursday then matches up with Northern Colorado Saturday, the 7-8 Bears only game of the week.

Likewise co-league leader Sacramento State has a single game heading to suddenly relevant Portland State (8-7) Saturday night.

While the Grizzlies are in Moscow to challenge the Vandals Thursday night the Bobcats, who are virtually eliminated from the post season with just a chance of seven circuit victories, looks for the upset against Eastern Washington (11-3).

Idaho dropped a pair last week at Northern Arizona and Southern Utah and with but six league wins with four to go are vying for the seventh or eighth spot with Weber State and Southern Utah. 

With Sac at Portland State Saturday and the Grizzlies facing Eastern in an afternoon contest, there will also be some shifting at the top of the league.

Winners of five straight and arguably playing as well as anyone winning 11 of their last 13 outings, the Grizzlies meet an Idaho team that jumped them in Missoula earlier this month.

The Vandals led by seven before the second media stoppage but Montana came charging back to take a 32-24 halftime lead, surviving a 38.5 percent first-half field goal percentage by netting five treys but in 16 attempts.

And after the break they caught fire and cruised to a 14-point victory by shutting down Idaho's high scoring and three-point shooting attack and missing but eighth of 22 shots.

Senior Connor Hill paces the Vandals vaunted three-point attack shooting 46 percent and netting 3.5 a game, fourth best in the country and trailing only Eastern's Tyler Harvey.

Interestingly the Big Sky Conference leads all leagues in three-point proficiency at almost 38 percent.

Idaho senior guard Mike Scott stirs the mix dropping almost six dimes a game and the Vandals are the best league team in rebounding (plus 4.8). 

Montana won the boards by one in the first meeting, dominated in the paint 28-12 and scored 14 points off 17 Vandal turnovers while just turning the ball over 10 times themselves.

Turnovers, however, have been more frequent in recent weeks.

Game time from Memorial Gym Thursday is 8 p.m. MT with pre-game at 7:30.

Player of the Week

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For the second consecutive week the Grizzlies boast the Co-Player of the week.

I was surprised to learn that when Jordan Gregory was accorded the honor last week it was the first time the fourth-year senior had been so recognized given how consistent the Colorado product has been the past two seasons.

And with junior Martin Breunig being recognized this week I am again surprised it is his initial nod especially since he has scored in double figures in every game he has played in except the opening loss at Colorado State when he netted just a half dozen.

But with the league increasing to a dozen teams it becomes far more difficult for a player's domination to be so recognized especially given the parity this season that sees a trio of teams tied in the win column with but two weeks to go.

Breunig, a transfer who was required to sit out last season after his transfer from the University of Washington, has been the model of consistency and last week recorded the season's fourth double-double with 19 points and 10 rebounds in Saturday's victory over Weber State.

Seventeen points and eight rebounds came after the intermission against the Wildcats after tallying 22 points, eight rebounds, a pair of assists and two blocks in the win over Idaho State.

The junior from Germany missed but eight of 26 field goal attempts in the two games and is shooting better than 58 percent from the floor while averaging just south of 17 points an outing, just a couple of decimal points better than Gregory .

Gregory enjoyed an almost equally productive pair of performances with 15 points, five rebounds and four assists against Weber State following a 16-points and quartet assist effort against Idaho State.

And already with 16 wins first-year mentor Travis DeCuire becomes just the fifth Grizzly coach to record that many victories in his initial season joining Stew Morrill, Blaine Taylor, Larry Krystowiak and Wayne Tinkle.

Up next is Idaho on Thursday in the old Memorial gym in Moscow.

After consecutive losses at Sacramento State and in Missoula to Eastern Washington, the Griz victory over the Vandals was a bounce-back gut-check affair and they handled UI easily 70-56.

But Thursday's game promises to be a potential trip-up game with Eastern Washington on the docket Saturday afternoon.

But this year's edition has shown no propensity to look past any team and I would indeed be surprised if that occurs this week. 

Great weekend for the Griz

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Griz hoops just keeps rolling along.

Montana evened the score with Weber State defeating the Wildcats for the eighth consecutive time in Missoula.

And with an 11th win in the last 13 outings and fifth straight the Grizzlies moved into a tie in the win column with Eastern Washington and Sacramento State setting up quite the finish to league play the next two weeks.

Sac has the tiebreaker over Montana having defeated the Grizzlies in Sacramento and the Grizzlies were defeated in Missoula by EWU but Montana has a chance to right that wrong when they face the Eagles in Cheney Saturday.

Saturday was an emotional night at Dahlberg Arena as not only the trio of seniors were honored, but Sports Information Director Dave Guffey was recognized at mid-court during the pre-game in advance of his retiring after 37 years.

"Guff" joins an impressive list of tenured Athletic Department employees as only Jiggs Dahlberg, Harry Adams and Naseby Rhinehart served longer while current Lady Griz coach Robin Selvig is in his 37th season.

But back to Saturday night's domination of Weber State, a team now with a 6-9 circuit mark and on the verge of being eliminated from the eight-team post season affair.

The Wildcats jumped out to a 24-16 advantage with about seven to play in the first half but in the last six minutes to the break the Grizzlies went on a 20-5 run to lead 36-29.

Montana led by as many as 17 a couple of times in the second stanza and while the Wildcats cut it to nine points shortly into the second half Montana was not about to be headed.

The Grizzlies shot a robust 50 percent from the field, connected on eight treys and dominated 28-8 in the paint to secure the convincing victory.

Just a couple of days beyond his 23rd birthday Martin Breunig posted double figures for the 24 consecutive time with 19 points while Jordan Gregory capped his senior night with 15 points to move into 19th on the all-time scoring list just five points back of Chris Spoja. 

Breunig also posted a double-double grabbing 10 caroms, seven of which came on the offensive end where 10 offensive boards lead to 22 second-chance points.

It's on the road to Moscow Thursday followed by a Saturday afternoon date with Eastern Washington.

ISU scouting report

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With their back against the proverbial wall winless in six road games Idaho State kicks off Montana's final home weekend in regular season league play.

The Bengals, who were pummeled by the Grizzlies in Pocatello a little over a month ago, stand tied for the basement of the Big Sky with just a trio of league wins.

But ISU and Montana State are just two games back of the final post-season tournament position with five to go.

The Grizzlies hit burst to a 9-0 lead in Pocatello after three Brandon Gfeller's three treys and it was 3½ minutes before the Bengals netted a field goal.

Montana quickly moved to a double-digit advantage and even though ISU shot just short of 50 percent, this one was never in doubt as the Grizzlies bounced back from a disheartening loss at Weber State two nights earlier.

ISU sharpshooter Chris Hansen, now the program's all-time three point shooter, was just three of a dozen from the field and connected on just a pair of treys as Montana connected on an amazing 15 of 27 from outside the arc. 

Idaho State started last week defeating eight-win Northern Arizona in Pocatello but then with an opportunity to move up in the standings saw Montana State and Idaho sweep and fell to Southern Utah, a team that rode the momentum of a win of an upset win in Ogden.

Senior Chris Hansen leads the Bengals but is just in the top 20 in scoring with a 17 point average and while Montana hung 90 points on ISU the Bengals allow about 72 in league games.

That compares to Montana's league-best 61 point mark which is some five  points superior to the remainder of the circuit.

ISU nearly occupies the league basement in scoring margin (minus five) and while they stand in the middle of the league in field goal percentage, the Bengals stand fourth in three-point proficiency but have fewer mades (63) than any other league team. They average less than five an outing.

In league games the Grizzlies lead the league in margin, scoring D and field goal and three-point defense.

Marcus Bradley came off the bench hitting eight of nine for 19 points the first time around but was offset by Gfeller's career-high 23 and Jordan Gregory's 20.

For Montana it is table-setting time.

 

The business end of the Big Sky season

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There's plenty to settle as the bottom quartet of Big Sky Conference teams - a pair with three league wins and two with a quartet of circuit victories try to launch themselves into talk of tournament seeding. 

Seemingly formerly eliminated Montana State swept the road trip and remains with an outside chance for the post season but with just three league wins, while Idaho State got the upset last week against Northern Arizona but fell two nights later against Southern Utah.

The Thunderbirds and North Dakota, swept last week by the Montana schools, share four win marks, one back of defending champion Weber State, alone in the eighth playoff position.

While eight-win Northern Arizona is probably secure, the other eight teams really all are positioning first to stay in consideration, then for seeding in the three-day March affair. 

This week on Thursday Idaho, trailing NAU by two wins, goes to Flagstaff while hard-luck Northern Colorado visits Sacramento. The Bobcats probably have to win out and are home Weber, while UND is on a precipice and goes to the Rose City.

Elsewhere Southern Utah hosts Eastern Washington and be aware that EWU, Idaho and So Utah have played but 12 games compared to the 13 of the other teams and certainly can be viewed as a help or a hindrance.

It is that familiar scenario for Montana with five to play. 

Take care of the Evans' zone and play just as hard and effective against hobbled Weber State - sophomore Jeremy Senglin, last season's Freshman of the year and the team's leading scorer (16), is out four weeks with a broken jaw - as if they were their usual title contender. 

Then finishing with road matchups with Idaho, Eastern and the Cats sets up probably the league's toughest finish, but then again opportunity abounds.

Incidentally Montana plays the Vandals not in the vast confines of the Kibbie Dome but in Memorial Gym where the two teams met so many times years ago.

With just 32 league games remaining, outside of the Grizzlies, the hottest team in the circuit might be Northern Arizona, winners of five of six and with three remaining road games.

Just Sacramento State remains unscathed at home while EWU, Northern Arizona and Montana show a single home league defeat.

When the Bengals show up Thursday they boast the school's all-time three-point shooter in senior Chris Hansen whose 214 treys are the 14th most in league history.

Further scouting the Bengals on Thursday.

A big homecoming for Gregory

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Indeed it was one for the ages and one of the zaniest of my career but how ironic was it that a Colorado native, now 20th on Montana's all-time scoring list but initially recruited by Northern Colorado, would be the player that clinched a Griz win after a trio of extra overtime sessions.

Things just seem to work in strange ways, and let's just say in Montana and Jordan Gregory's case... well... you know.

Gregory, this week's league co-Player of the Week, has been a pillar for this surprising Griz team that stands tied in the 10-win column with Eastern Washington and Sacramento State.

Gregory has scored in double figures in all but five games and has a chance depending on the number remaining to approach the 15th spot. That is plenty high ground for a guy who played in 18 games as a true freshman scoring just 17 points.

But as the story goes, he would just as soon been another kind of a bear than an Ursus Horribilis.

According to his dad Mark, who also wouldn't have minded seeing his son play closer to their Pueblo home, now Colorado coach tad Boyle, then at UNC, showed plenty of interest and a scholarship to Gregory but when he departed for the job in Boulder new coach B.J. Hill just encouraged "Greg" to use his academics for finances and become a "preferred walk-on", citing maybe he wasn't just quite good enough.

But in swooped Montana and the rest they say is history, kind of like the 44 points he has scored again the Bear this season as he has played in 80 Griz victories and already back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances.

And the psychology major who just was named to the All District All American team is far from seeing his illustrious career come to an end.

Picked by coaches to finish eighth in the league race, this Montana team now winners of nine of 11 has learned in the last three games in victories over Idaho, North Dakota and now Northern Colorado how to put a game away, something they failed to do early.

But with three of the last five road games, this end of the season drive promises to be anything but easy pickings.

And then of course the first and probably the last eight-team post season affair to determine the league's NCAA bid.

But first things first as popular former Griz assistant coach Bill Evans brings his zone and Idaho State team to Dahlberg Arena Thursday night.

Crunch time is on the horizon as the "good guys" continue to peak and ride the momentum of the thriller in the high country.

How the Griz stack up against North Dakota

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The Grizzlies continue to post impressive defensive numbers in Big Sky Conference play yet they stand near the bottom of the circuit in point production.

 

Grand Forks beckons for the Grizzlies tonight as Montana challenges the University of North Dakota.

 

In 11 league games the Griz have allowed just less than 60 points an outing, south of 42 percent from the field and while scoring just 68.7 themselves are outscoring league opponents by almost nine an outing.

 

Those stats rank at the top of those categories and represent a substantial improvement over the complete schedule statistics.

 

The Grizzlies also have moved to the top of the league in three-point defense (.329) and now trail just offensive board banging Northern Arizona and Idaho in rebounding margin.

 

Tonight's opponent North Dakota tallies a bit better than 71 an outing, but have been outscored by 11 league opponents by almost five points.

 

They're shooting some 45 percent, about what they are giving up, and have made league-worst 61 treys while shooting less than 32 percent from long range.

 

They also are among the worst defenders in the league from long range and rank at the bottom in rebounding.

 

Sophomore Quinton Hooker leads UND in scoring with about a dozen an outing and is followed by senior Jaron Nash and junior Estan Tyler in double figures.

 

Nash is the rebounding pace setter followed by Hooker, both with better than five caroms an outing, while Hooker also is among the league leaders in dropping dimes as he averages six assists an outing.

 

The Griz swept UND and UNC on the first weekend of league play which started on New Years Day and held the former Flickertails to 29 first-half points.

 

Meanwhile senior guard Jordan Gregory continues to enjoy a spectacular season as well as junior post Martin Breunig. Both are averaging better than 16 points an outing.

 

Gregory now is just a point back of  Jeremy Lake for 25th on the all-time scoring list and depending on the number of games remaining could close in the school's top 15.

 

With a dozen points Gregory would pass Mike Warhank, Brian Qvale and Roger Fasting and move into the 21st spot.

 

North Dakota lads the Montana series 8-7 and beat the Grizzlies in Fargo last season 74-69 while UM prevailed in Missoula.

 

Big road trip for the Griz

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The battle for the final spot in the eight-team Big Sky Conference Tournament in addition to the undisputed league lead intensifies even a step further this week.

 

The Grizzlies are on the longest trek of the season with games in Fargo, North Dakota and Greeley Colorado.

 

But an hour before Montana faces off with a North Dakota team that with just four league wins - ironically just one of five at home - Sacramento State travels to Cheney where the Eagles amazingly are unbeaten not just in five circuit matchups but in all 11 home games this season.

 

The Hornets, winners of seven straight and the Eags, in the midst of a five-game skein, are tied in the loss column with just a single defeat with seven games remaining on the Sac State schedule one less than Eastern Washington.

 

It was indeed a historic swing through the Treasure State for the Eagles who swept both games for the first time since 2004, the last time they won in Missoula and it marked just the fourth time ever Eastern has swept the league trip in 28 years.

 

It is just as noteworthy a season for the Hornets who just clinched a first-ever winning season since moving to Division 1 in 1991 and they have now won a school-record eight league games at the Nest where they've captured 19 of 21 over two seasons.

 

It appears in lieu of an amazing turnaround that Montana State, Idaho State and Southern Utah are left to the role of league spoiler as they trail the field by two or in the case of the Cats three games and have failed to yet win a road league game.

 

The remaining nine teams chase eight tournament spots with Idaho and North Dakota vying to claim the final spot, a single win back of Portland State and Weber State.

 

Montana's task if you will is to gets wins against a North Dakota team that surprisingly has just three home wins while losing 11 of 12 on the road, then a grueling trip to Denver and on to Greeley where a Northern Colorado team just a game back of Montana awaits. And the Bears always have been challenging.

 

It's a 6:05 p.m. tipoff Thursday night with pre-game at 5:30.

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