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Griz head back to Grand Forks

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Back to Grand Forks for the third consecutive year for the Grizzlies who look to pick up that first road win of the season.

Montana looks to send UND to straight league losses and basically eliminate any post season aspirations.

The "No-Nicks" stand 2-3 and with both wins at the Alerus Center after falling to No. 13 Montana State 29-18 last week.

UND has struggled offensively, scoring just north of 11 a game, and have been shut out thus far in the first quarter.

And their offense, hampered by the departure of four receivers, basically has been anemic rushing for just an average of 90 yards a game and totaling just 223 yards against 341 yards gained by opponents.

In wins at home over Robert Morris and Stony Brook, UND scored but 16 and 13 points respectively.

But while they have are even in turnover margin, that's mostly because their defense has caused a dozen fumbles, amazingly recovering nine.

But they have put the ball on the turf nine times themselves, losing five while also being intercepted five times.

Joel Molberg is the starter at quarterback who has completed just half of his throws for 652 yards and a trio of TDs.

Molberg did put up a season-high 222 yards against Montana State and the offense also posted a season-high with 293 yards of total offense but the Cats jumped all over UND in the second quarter and led 26-7 at intermission.

His 22 completions were more than he totaled in the previous three games.

Redshirt freshman Kyle Norberg played on both sides of the football against Missouri State when he rushed 27 times, the most by a UND back this season, while also seeing time at linebacker.

He appears now to be the starting back and has rushed 51 times but just for 2.5 yards a tote.

UND has been hurt with injuries to running backs Cedric Simmons and Adam Shaugabay who both were sidelined during the Missouri State game.

Through the first four games, 14 different players have started on defense and 11 were first-time starters.

Senior cornerback Alex Tillman, a drop-down from Houston, has impacted the lineup. He returned an interception 92 yards for a score against Stony Brook.

Kickoff is 12:30 MDT.            

This week in the Big Sky

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The Griz have one conference win in the books and are headed back to North Dakota.

Defense was the word of the day as Montana held Northern Colorado to a single touchdown and allowed but a single second half field goal in trouncing the Bears by 25 points.

North Dakota State of course remains the nation's top ranked unit but is still not a unanimous choice as eight voters favored Eastern Washington after the Eagles 23-point domination of UC Davis.

You already know my feelings about that.

The defending champ is the number one team until someone proves otherwise and while the Bison had a bye last week, they're unbeaten in four outings.

Filling out the Top 25 had little challenge this week since No. 22 Liberty was the only beat to catch a defeat ripped by previously unranked but 3-1 Indiana State 39-19.

That vaulted the Sycamores into No. 25, the first time they've been ranked since late 2012.

The Grizzlies remained at No 7 with Montana State standing No. 13 after defeating North Dakota easily 29-18.

What did I say about the top-ranked Missouri Valley Conference - Well there are seven teams from the league in the Top 25, one more than the CAA.

The only upset I see in the Big Sky in the first week was in Pocatello where Mike Kramer's Bengals defeated Sacramento State decisively by 20 points.

Davis played Eastern Washington straight up in the first half, trailing just 9-7 but it was all Eagles after the break and quarterback Vernon Adams continues his charge to the top of the circuit TD mark with two more.

He's now three back of the all-time record.

Jerome Souers picked up a thrilling victory scoring from the 12 on fourth down with 21 seconds to play to prevail by three as quarterback Chase Cartwright, who connected on a quartet of TD scores, took the Lumberjacks 71 yards in a minute and change to please the Flagstaff faithful.

Conference activity continues in earnest Saturday with 12 of the league's teams facing off and looking at box scores this might be a season of outstanding QB play.

    

 

The Homecoming that was

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Much the same at Homecoming at Washington Grizzly Stadium and that certainly is a good thing.

Having lost just 26 games in the history of the Stadium and winners of 21 of the last 22 "Get Back to Campus" celebrations, the Grizzlies dominated outmanned Northern Colorado early on then coasted to victory without tallying a second half touchdown.

More than 25,000 relished the pre-game extravaganza then settled in to enjoy a penalty-filled afternoon that saw Montana hang four first quarter TDs on the Bears who struggled to match the early intensity.

Mick Delaney thought the Griz had a scheme to block a punt and sure enough after back-to-back procedure penalties, they sent the house and over matched UNC's personal protectors and with Addison Owen's block took possession at the 10-yard line and Jordan Johnson found Jamaal Jones on the second play for Montana's first score of the Big Sky Conference season.

Northern Colorado back-up QB Jonathon Newsom gave the Bear some spark by out running a good share of the Griz D on a 74-yard TD rambling up the middle of the field to get the Bears on the scoreboard and cut the first-half advantage to 21 and a second quarter field goal made the score respectable but Johnson's third scoring pass made it 35-10 at the break and this one was pretty much in the book as the teams only traded second-half field goals..

Johnson also ran in a TD to match the second most touchdowns in Griz history which also was accomplished earlier this season by Travon Van and moved into third all-time with 59 passing TDs passing Cole Bergquist.

Newsom was at the helm after one series when starting QB Sean Rubalcaba was sidelined with a shoulder injury noticed during warm-up. Improvisational under some intense Griz pressure, he was able to often elude Montana defenders and completed 22 for 198 yards.

Buchannan Watch List defensive end Zack Wagenmann had quite an afternoon but I thought his best move came after his television interview with Jen Mueller when an adoring young man sprinted toward him and into his arms.

Like throughout his stellar career Zack never missed a beat and casually caught him and walked into a larger crowed of fans.

That was my play of the day befitting Homecoming.   

 

FCS Rising

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So when is the last time that the two Montana teams played the top two FCS teams in the country and neither came away with a victory.

Actually I doubt if Montana and Montana State have ever faced off on the same day against the nation's top two teams let alone neither taste victory.

Let's face it. There has been a shift in FCS and it's been mostly fueled by the emergence of North Dakota State as a perennial power and the surge of Eastern Washington to national prominence.

While the Grizzlies had their dominant run, they haven't finished as season as the nation's top team since the championship run of 2001, although they were ranked second at the end of 2004, 2008 and 2009.

Now I am certainly not to intimate that the proverbial sky is falling but Montana has not won the league since the unbeaten 2009 session and haven't been the circuit runner-up since 2010.

The Eagles, favored by both coaches and media prior to this season, have won the league or been runner-up the last seven years.

And Eastern Washington has claimed or shared the championship three of the last four seasons.

I only point this out because we are on the eve of the start of league play, only the second with a 13-team schedule, in the league's 51st season.

Interestingly the Big Sky Conference is dipping in strength trailing the Missouri Valley, CAA and Ohio Valley, just ahead of the Southland and the Ivy League.

But no better time to start to turn of the tables kicks off in Missoula with a Homecoming tilt against hapless, at least thus far, Northern Colorado.

The Bears start a trio of sophomores on the offensive front yet appear in the first three games (1-2) to want to run the football.

Senior back Robert Holland leads the rushing attack averaging just south of five yards a carry, while Darius Graham, who is slightly bigger, has nine less carries but leads UNC with three TDs.

Quarterback Sean Rubalcaba completes 69 percent but has tossed a single TD against one pick.

But defensively the Bears are ball hogs leading the league with nine picks and by seven different players.

5-foot 6 redshirt freshman Ellis Onic is a serious kick return specialist who is averaging 24 yards on six returns, while leading receiver Dimitri Stimphill (13 receptions for 237 yards and a score) has pitched in returning three for about an average of 15.

Let the dominance of UNC continue.

 

   

  

The Other Bears Come Calling for Homecoming

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Saturday's Homecoming opponent has never defeated the Grizzlies in Missoula and in fact only shows a single victory over Montana and that occurred a decade before any member of this year's team was born.

The last time the Bears were victorious in the series between the two teams came in the first game, a 27-19 victory in Greeley in 1976.

Since then the Grizzlies have won 12 straight, seven consecutive in Missoula and seven in a row since UNC opted to join the Big Sky Conference.

And it really has not been a competitive series with the average margin of defeat just south of 23 points a game with the closest outcome of 10 points occurring in Greeley in 1979.

It has been a rough go for fourth-year head coach Earnest Collins Jr., who has but a 7-30 record.

Northern Colorado finished at the bottom of the circuit last year, failing to win a league game and finishing with a 1-11 overall mark.

But in this year opener in Vegas, the Bears gave UNLV all they wanted, falling just 13-12 after missing a chip-shot field goal that would have given them the lead with five-plus to go.

But last week they were easily measured at No. 10 Northern Iowa 46-7 after disposing of Houston Baptist of the Southland Conference 28-20 the previous week.

While Wyoming transfer Dan Sullivan was anointed the place kicker after his performance against North Dakota State, the kicking challenges continue to grab a headline as punter Stephen Shaw sustained meniscus damage to his knee, said Mick Delaney, and will not be available Saturday and may face a scoping after the swelling decreases.

Shaw will be replaced by left-footer Chris Lider.

Delaney revealed on Tuesday's Coach's Show that Sullivan, who hasn't played in two years, suffered a serious stroke during the summer of 2012.

Having been there myself a year ago, I can tell you after the extensive rehab required, I'm amazed he is back on the football field in any capacity.

I'll go in the foxhole with Dan Sullivan any time.

I sincerely hope a huge crowd shows up on the Oval at 8 p.m. Friday night for traditional Homecoming activities, then on to the Holiday Inn and quite frankly I am amazed there were still tickets available as I write this.

 

 

         

Positive Takeaways

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The Montana defense, while besieged by a North Dakota State rush offense that gobbled up rush yards spent two-thirds of the game on the field and an average of almost six yards per play but somehow stifled the high scoring Bison by holding them to a single touchdown.

The Griz can only say "what if" as they head to the friendly confines to open the Big Sky Conference season against Northern Colorado.

Hoping they have a second chance to challenge the three-time national titlist, unless the wheels came flying off the NDSU season, would no doubt return Montana to the Fargodome but that's easily nine or 10 games away and in the realm of highly unlikely.

The task at hand, facing a pair of North entities, one from Colorado and the other from Dakota as circuit play begins in earnest.

Results from Bozeman Saturday certainly is an indication either that Eastern Washington and the Bobcats can't defend anyone or Montana State has a high-powered offense, something we already knew about the Eagles.

In Fargo, the Bison are exactly as advertised: NDSU does not allow anything after halftime, features a diverse rush defense, has somewhat an Achilles when it comes to the airways and keeps the ball out of their opponents hands with a grinding usually straight-up rush attack.

The Bison ran 79 offensive plays to Montana's 48, allowed but nine first downs, just three on the ground after 68 yards gained on 19 carries, gave up three of 13 third down conversions and didn't turn the ball over.

There was improvement in the Montana kicking game with transfer Dan Sullivan booting two of three kickoffs into the end zone, booting a chip-shot 20-yard field goal and converting an extra point.

There also was improvement in the penalty phase of the game with Montana being flagged just a trio of five yarders, well under their season average in the first three games.

While superlatives are scarce in a game like this the 38-yard completion to Ellis Henderson after being blasted into the padding behind the Grizzly bench plays earlier and the 72-yard catch and run by Jamal Jones were highlights of the day.

A near sell-out throng is expected Saturday as that other Bear tries to break a 12-game losing streak to the Ursus Horribilis.

 

   

       

A Look at the Top 25

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North Dakota State solidified its spot at the top of The Sports Network Top 25 far outdistancing Eastern Washington with the majority of all but nine of the first place votes but in defeat the Grizzlies fell to just seventh.

Unbeaten after four games Montana nemesis Coastal Carolina moved to its highest poll position (3rd) after slamming winless Florida A&M 48-3.

But I needed this - The Sports Network story documenting the move of the Chanticleers (Shon-ti-cleers) aptly described the meaning of their mascot as a rooster who rules the barnyard with cunning and wit.

Wow and I didn't find that one when Coastal Carolina came to Missoula in the second-round playoff game last year.  I am slipping.

Even though Coastal Carolina lost almost half their starters to graduation their Wall Street executive coach has them believing in themselves and powering about the Big South Conference.

So with three of four Big Sky Conference teams losing the league continues to spiral a bit in conference power which obviously is paced by the Missouri Valley headed by NDSU.

South Dakota was the only MVC to lose last week and Joe Glenn's troops rebounded with a single-TD verdict over Northern Arizona. 

Seven of the Top 25 was defeated and three, NAU, Furman (2-3) and Sam Houston State (1-3) fell from the elite list.

Joining Montana (2-2) as a bit surprising in the top 10 is Northern Iowa, which blasted Homecoming opponent Northern Colorado 46-7. It was their first win in the initial three games.

Southeastern Louisiana took the largest drop eight spots from No 3 after dropping just a one-point decision to Southeast Missouri State.

Despite losing to No. 2 Eastern Washington, the Cats moved up a spot to No. 13.

I boosted unbeaten CAA team Albany onto the list and voters landed them into the No 24 spot, while Eastern Kentucky looks formidable and after stomping UT Martin 49-24 they moved four spots to No. 19.

Illinois State and Delaware were new teams that made the list.

And in week five, now things really get interesting.    

No time to dwell on the past

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It was a battle of good old-fashioned smashed mouth football between titans of FCS, and in the end the home team prevailed to win for a 28th consecutive time.

No excuses are offered and none are required as the close to 19,000 fans at the Fargodome were treated to a gridiron struggle deserving of the pre-game accolades and anticipation.

And while Montana dropped the non-conference game, I see no need to hang their head or be inconsolable but rather to acknowledge defeat by no means dwelling on the outcome but rather to sharpen their fangs for what now is a weekly restart to post-season opportunities.

That it took a record setting field goal performance by Adam Keller to post the majority of the afternoon's points (15) and North Dakota State was held to three scores less than their season average certainly is an indication of how a Grizzly defense that spent some two-thirds of the day on the field played.

But coaches will tell you this week, it just wasn't good enough and any time your opponent rushes for 280 yards and runs 30 more plays, while the noose was taunt, it wasn't cinched and the Bison exposed what comes at a price - not only do you have to keep a rushing attack from getting to the second level, you simply have to have a run game of your own.

The Grizzlies are not a team that is going to wing the ball some 50 times an outing on the other side of the ball Saturday's top three Montana tacklers - all in double figures - were the starting linebackers and the majority of their stops were of the solo variety.

NDSU certainly executed a superb game plan. Credit the three-time defending national champion with being what they're advertised - a hard-nosed, consistent, finely-oiled rushing juggernaut that just keeps bringing it and while not spectacular play extremely sound defense.

Young athletes however are incredibly resilient and by the time you read my words, their nose will be firmly planted on the grindstone and with conference play starting with the Homecoming game remember that every pre-season goal remains on the table.

Yet a two-game blemish leaves little room for err and adds a premium to every minute of remaining competition.

To the victor goes the spoils and NDSU has it goin', there little doubt of that. Now it's time for the Griz to answer the bell and I have no doubt - to use that old baseball axiom - they're ready to step up to the plate.              

Griz in Rare Position as "Underdog"

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Travel day is upon us and a first-ever visit to the Dakotadome in Fargo awaits.

Is there anything like being voted the No 3 or 4 team in the country and being figured such an underdog that you might as well send the charter flight elsewhere?

If not now-when and if not us who I say as the Grizzlies look to strap it on with powerful North Dakota State.

It's a home-and-home arrangement with the Bison visiting Missoula for the first time since as a Division II they upset Montana in 2003, the last time the two teams met.

One of the more interesting stats to me is that NDSU not just rushes the ball to the tune of 242 yards a game in their first three but that they hand the ball off an average of 43 times an outing.

Conversely Montana rushes some 32 times a game while accumulating an average of 182 yards an outing, a bit more than half of their offense.

The Grizzlies have thrown the ball 88 times or an average of more than 29 times a contest.

Now those stats are a little skewed because rushing yards lost or gained because of pressure or quarterback scrambling play a role but you get the picture.

The Bison have won some 46 of the last 48 games at home and with 19,000-plus expected, it will be a great atmosphere but to me there something about playing inside that seems to swallow the uproar and with Montana's anticipated silent count, I don't see that as a critical factor.

Now adjustment - that's another story especially in the second half.

The three-time defending FCS champion just has not given up points in the second half and get stronger at the line of scrimmage, something much like the Grizzlies are known for.

The trenches will be a battle of behemoths but as much as folks have said the Grizzly offensive line is young and inexperienced, three of the five Bison offensive linemen - both tackles and a guard - are underclassmen and just four of their 10 returning starters are on that side of the ball.

It should be a beaut!

Why Not the Grizzlies?

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Eventually No. 1 ranked North Dakota State will be knocked from their pedestal ending their leading active winning streak standing now at 27.

So why shouldn't it be by the team that previously held the position and has played in more title games than only one other team?

The nation's collective FCS eyes will be focused on Fargo Saturday afternoon for what promises to be key matchup of the early season.

NDSU winning streak is the longest-ever in Missouri Valley (Gateway) Conference history and also the longest in Division 1 football exceeding Florida State's run by nine games.

 And the Bison have done nothing but be convincing that a four consecutive national title is a possibility by ripping Iowa State by 20 points in the opener then trip Weber State in a tough outing 24-7 before dominating outmanned Incarnate Word last week.

It promises to be football like the old days with North Dakota State being perfectly content to run the ball some 50 times - a strategy in a bit of a lesser amount familiar to Mick Delaney's Grizzlies - and holding opponents down with the nation's 10th best defense.

This is your grandpa's football game to the sheer delight of a sellout crowd approaching 19,000 with NDSU welcoming its two millionth fan through the Dakotadome turnstyles.

Defensive end Kyle Emanuel is the lynchpin of a NDSU defense that is second in scoring and   seventh in both third downs allowed  and turnover margin.

They held the Cyclones to 102 rushing yards and 57 yards of total offense after intermission, a staple of the Bison's game plan.

Concerning for Montana is points left off the board because of the kicking game and Wyoming transfer Dan Sullivan has been handed the reins for this one.

There often seems to be an "X" factor in this kind of game and I see coming down to special teams or turnovers.

The punters and returners are about even but knock on wood now, the Grizzlies have yet to put the ball on the ground or throw an interception, while the Bison though plus-two to Montana's plus-five have twice been intercepted and although they didn't lose the ball either time have fumbled twice.

I think Montana has surprises in mind as well and have the weapons to do so and are improving in each outing. It is by far not a finished product but there's not a one of the 58 on the travel roster who doesn't believe they'll be in it at the end with a chance to claim victory.

Montana probably won't win the pre-game - NDSU looks awesome - but does anyone remember highly heralded Northern Iowa in Don Read's second year in 1987?

Having lost to Portland State in the Stadium and falling at Northern Arizona, the Grizzlies were 1-2 after beating Nevada when they trounced Northern Iowa 33-16.

You just never know.

   

#GRIZvNDSU Steeped in History

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It's all about winning the Big Sky Conference but also putting enough games in the left hand column to get to the post season and nothing could go further to that end than beating the three-time FCS champion on their home turf.

Sweet revenge for decades of sour feelings is in the offing for a bunch of Grizzlies who weren't born when the misfortune of defeat by North Dakota State in the Camellia Bowl occurred in Sacramento.

It was the smaller college version of the national championship in those days and both in 1969 and 70, the Grizzlies enjoyed 10-0 seasons only to have the NCAA rule that junior college transfers would not be allowed to participate in the post-season contest.

Now in those days northwest JC ranks were ripe with major college players who for one reason or another went to the lower college ranks in advance of enrolling in a major institution.

 And take my word for it, it was tough, hard-nosed football often in those days dominated by Dwight Poole's Columbia Basin College in the Tri Cities.

It was a diverse league with long bus trips to places like Wenatchee, Ontario Ore., Grays Harbor, Everett and Bremerton to name a few.

 Equipment was slight, coaches were up-and-comers and training staff-well you get the picture.

 And as fate would have it, the Grizzlies fell 30-3 to NDSU in 1969 and in even a more dominant 10-0 season, lost again to the Bison 31-16 in 1970.

Now those were not the days of dominant Griz football although Jack Swarthout teams posted a 51-41 mark in his nine years at the helm after succeeding Hugh Davidson in 1967.

But in both seasons Montana claimed first ever Big Sky Conference football titles.

They were not to win another until Larry Donovan's 1983 team with Joe Glenn shared the circuit crown after an 11-year drought.

While the series between the two stands even at three, the Griz victories occurred before WWII in 1914, '21 and '41.

Yes the Bison certainly are on a roll with a trio of consecutive championship banners but they are by no means unbeatable.

Weber State (with eight FBS transfers) was on the one, down 14 in the second half but couldn't get into the end zone eventually losing 21-7.

NDSU has not been scored upon after the intermission and yes it is a daunting task that could define a season for both teams.

Quite a day!

 

A Look at the Bison

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The buzz on The Sports Network Monday was all about five of the 10 Missouri Valley Conference teams once again ranked in the top 25, eight of the circuit's 10 entities winning over the weekend and their league outscoring opponents 359-148.

The only FCS loss in 16 games by a Missouri Valley Conference team occurred in Missoula Saturday night as the Grizzlies topped South Dakota.

In fact with Indiana State's defeat of Ball State Saturday both the Sycamores and North Dakota State sport wins over FBS teams and Indiana State was picked to finish last in the league.

But while Fargo hosted Game Day for the second time in consecutive years last Saturday, they did so a week early as when Montana invades the Bison this week all FCS football eyes will be focused on the outcome.

Now let's face it the Grizzlies make the trek as an underdog, a role I relish, and have surrendered their football superiority to what NDSU has been able to accomplish the last three seasons with consecutive national championships.

 They are the runaway No 1 choice of voters and have won 27 straight, surpassing the record shared by Montana at 24.

But just in case people outside of Griz Nation have forgotten, it is Montana with the second-most championship game appearances (7) and that pair of national titles of their own in 1995 followed by 2001.

And while Montana certainly is young and inexperienced on the offensive line and has left points on the board because of the kicking game, the 4th ranked Grizzlies will not be cannon fodder in Fargo Saturday afternoon.

While it is how you play in November that speaks volumes and Montana's road schedule is brutal, it is all about weekly improvement and the challenge of measuring up at the Fargodome can do nothing but pay future dividends.

And if you are a fan of football in the trenches - the Bison depth chart in the dirt resembles an NFL roster - this promises to be a game to delight.

You can find out all about the matchup Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the Mick Delaney Show at Brooks and Browns inside the Holiday Inn in downtown Missoula.

And of course there is ancient history to recall as well with NDSU claiming back-to-back Camellia Bowl titles in the Jack Swarthout-Jack Elway years of 69-70.

 

 

How it happened: Griz 28-20 USD

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Continuing their mastery over South Dakota the 4th ranked Grizzlies sent the Coyotes packing to set up the biggest FCS game of the year to this point.

After the Grizzlies kept the turnover slate clean through three games and despite their place kicking failures, Montana was strong enough to drop USD for a fourth consecutive time and third straight season.

And while the game appeared to be settled several times with leads of 15, 11 and eight points, the Coyotes wouldn't go away and with a bit less than two minutes to play made it a one-possession game with Eric Shufford's 31-yard TD reception from sophomore backup QB Ryan Seager.

But the onside attempt went awry and the Grizzlies disposed of their 27th straight non-conference opponent before a capacity record crowd at Washington Grizzly Stadium.

Focused on continuing to rush the football, the Grizzlies rushed the ball 40 times with Jordan Canada leading the way by eclipsing the Century mark for the ninth time.

Canada did not see the field in the first quarter - disciplinary matter said Mick Delaney - stepping aside for Travon Van and John Nguyen but his 114v yards was eight more than the senior gained in the first two contests.

While dominating from the get-go, Montana didn't get points on the board until the last 39 seconds of the first quarter after Nguyen culminated a 15-play, 72-yard drive with a robust nine yard tally.

Jordan Johnson was an efficient 16 of 27 for 127 yards and his pair of touchdown passes vaulted the senior into fourth on the all-time list passing Grady Bennett, who was doing the television commentary.

He also moved into seventh on the all-time pass yardage list.

The story of the evening might well have been the defense which completely stifled the South Dakota rushing attack holding them to 134 yards and held the Yotes without a first down until midway through the second quarter.

Buchannan list defensive end Zack Wagenmann paced the unit with a trio of both tackles-for-loss and sacks.

The Missoula senior now stands just 51/2  sacks back of the all-time leader, the late Tim Bush, and passed Trey Young for sixth on the list of career tackles-for-loss.

Now at 2-1 it's on to Fargo to face streaking North Dakota State

Here come the Coyotes

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Montana will have its hands full with a two-headed rushing attack of South Dakota Saturday night and the defensively with a three-man front the Griz face a third different defense alignment in the last three weeks.

South Dakota is young on the defensive front starting a redshirt freshman and junior at the ends and a sophomore in the middle.

And although D end Drew Iddings goes 290, they're not particularly big on defense where there also is a pair of sophomores at four linebacker slots.

A 12-game starter last season, Iddings is a pre-season all-league pick who had tackles-for-loss and eight hurries last season.

The Coyotes didn't have a sack against either Oregon or William Penn and had 10 tackles-for-loss in the two games.

Backup free safety Tyson Graham leads USD in tackles with an even dozen of his 15 stops of the solo variety while sophomore inside backer John Wessel has just one less stop.

The numbers aren't really indicative because besides top-three ranked Oregon, William Penn was an outmanned NAIA that gave the Coyotes little difficulty.

South Dakota is a bit deficient in punting with Miles Bergner booting for 47, 40, 31 and 25 yards but he drilled a 47-yard field goal at Oregon and is perfect in four attempts.

But their return game with backup running back Jasper Sanders and receiver Eric Shufford is solid.

Senior inside backer Auston Johnson also is a pre-season all-circuit nominee who was third on the team with 69 tackles last season but has just a half-dozen stops so far.

Former Montana defensive coordinator Mike Breske's son Adam coaches the backers for Glenn and Jason Petrino, whose uncles Bobby and Paul both are Division-1 head coaches, is the defensive coordinator and in his third stint with Joe.

The Yote secondary could be suspect as all four starters graduated and six new players have rotated.

But I expect pound the rock to be the scenario for both teams.

It could be chilly Saturday night and given the two teams propensity to run the football one might be advised to layer and bundle and get set for a three-plus hour game.

  

 

 

  

Coyotes come calling

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Nobody can accuse University of South Dakota of not playing a challenging schedule.

The Coyotes feature seven of the top 25 FCS teams and the Grizzlies are USD's fifth straight top-20 team dating back to last season.

Joe Glenn's South Dakota team heads to Missoula Saturday night admittedly with their hair on fire as the Grizzlies go under the lights before hitting the road two of the next three weeks.

The Coyotes haven't had much success in Missoula not winning here since the 60's and lost what was for the former Grizzly mentor a heart breaker in Vermillion last season, the fourth straight loss to Montana and third in as many years.

A South Dakota alum, Joe's been a head coach for 27 years - his 193 coaching victories are sixth-most among active FCS coaches - but you can bet upending Montana at Washington Grizzly Stadium is high on the 65-year-olds bucket list.

While the Yotes are heavy with returnees on offense (8) much like Montana five true freshmen and 10 redshirt freshmen have played in the team's split of games with powerful Oregon and NAIA William Penn.

South Dakota is hard-nosed at the point of attack averaging 300 lbs across the front five and interesting enough their backups average a robust 290.

The Coyotes stand 12th nationally in rushing at 262 yards-per-game and both running backs eclipsed the century mark last weekend.

With starting quarterback Kevin Earl out with a broken thumb, Ryan Saeger performed admirably but he wasn't directing an offense out of the north end zone against one of the toughest rush defenses around.

Jordan Johnson returns for the game and expects to atone for the three picks he threw in last season's game especially since he was picked just five times all last season.

Senior Travon Van, who contributed 153 all-purpose yards and four touchdowns last week, didn't play at South Dakota last season and seeing the speedster with the football in space certainly is worth the price of admission.

Myself I can't wait to see him with the ball on a fly sweep, an inside handoff, or with the ball on a bubble screen cutting back against the grain.

Griz fans have not seen it yet but Montana is a big-play team on both sides of the football and they'll certainly be ready for explosive football especially in this nighttime atmosphere.  

Picking the top 25

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It is always a challenge as I sit down Sunday to vote in the Sports Network poll of top 25 FCS teams.

With the parity especially at the top of the nation's 252 teams in 15 conferences and independents and especially this time of the season when teams are either playing up in money games or down to fill their home schedule it often is difficult to compile an accurate ranking.

While most football fans are pinned to the television switching channels to follow the performances of their fantasy team players and their favorite NFL team, this modest scribe is back at it with not just poll results and voting but writing blogs and recording the first-of-the-week daily programs.

Now don't think I don't love every minute of it since I have been fortunate enough all these years to follow a chose avocation that I easily could say has never been a job but a dream.

I certainly came to realize that even more when a health scare caused me to miss the road basketball games but all is well and I'm as stoked as on the eve of that first Lady Griz game some 30 years ago.

But enough: My point is while there are dominant FCS teams, as was evidenced by the superb performance of quarterback Vernon Adams and Eastern Washington in taking the University of Washington to the brink of defeat, it is still difficult to decide when voting in the weekly poll things like: should unranked Southern Illinois jump substantially into the mix after trouncing No. 16 Eastern Illinois on the road? Is McNeese State a top five team given a close call in losing at Nebraska, or should No 22 Towson be dropped from this week's significance after being shutout 54-0 at West Virginia?

Yes while it certainly isn't brain surgery, woe is me.

A top 10 would be so much easier, or would it?

No doubt North Dakota State, a Griz opponent in Fargo Sept. 20, remains No. 1 and Eastern's showing leaves the Eagles my No. 2 although it was tempting to elevate 2-0 Southeastern Louisiana into the runner-up spot with the Griz record-evening victory over Central Washington leaving Montana fourth.

(I moved McNeese into the top five followed by Coastal Carolina even though they won just 31-30 at North Carolina A & T).

No. 9 Jacksonville State proved up to muster beating winless Chattanooga in Tennessee by an overtime field goal to get to seven on my ballot followed by idle Northern Iowa and New Hampshire.

By the time you read this you will be aware of how else in the country agrees and who does not but if you have read this far, here's a bonus.

On Tuesday I'll reflect on the demise of daily beat sports journalism.

Looking ahead to the Wildcats

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When he Grizzlies faced off in the opener against the University of Wyoming most of their game prep focused on what the Cowboy's new head coach Craig Bohl did at North Dakota State in winning 43 of the last 45 games and three national championships.

For the upcoming afternoon game against Central Washington, which has not yet opened the season, Montana's game prep will focus on what the Wildcats' new head coach Ian Shoemaker did as offensive coordinator at St Cloud State in Minnesota.

The Grizzlies open the home season at the second of eight different start times this season.

It's a 3:37 affair against the school that in 2008 pushed Montana to the final tick of the fourth quarter clock before Brody McKnight booted the three-point winner 38-35.

But don't expect this edition of Division-2 CWU to put six TDs on the board against the imposing  Grizzly defense that leads the nation after the opening weekend with six sacks and at least a half dozen tackles for loss.

Combine those statistics with a fumble recovery and an interception and one has the looks of a victory.

This week, however, the Grizzlies likely face at Central Washington team which will run a spread offense with quarterback Jake Nelson engineering head coach Shoemaker's zone-read offense.

Nelson threw for 1,282 yards and ran for an additional 261 last season.

Add to the mix third-year sophomore running back Jordan Todd, who contributed more than 1,200 yards rushing last season and a couple of quality receivers and you have the makings of a group that will bring a quite different look than Wyoming.

And defensively the Wildcats, according to Mick Delaney on the Coach's show, may well resemble Rich Ellerson's flex alignment at Cal Poly SLO that resembles a 3-5 look in the box.

Ben Weyer, who was injured in the first quarter in Laramie and didn't return, is day-to-day but may well miss Saturday's game with the possibility sophomore McCauley Todd will get the starting nod at right guard.

Two of the finest running backs ever to play at Montana, Dick "The Penguin" Imer and Yo Humphrey, will be inducted the Grizzly Sports Hall of Fame Friday night.

Remember kickoff this week at 3:37.

#GRIZvCWU

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Junior weak-side linebacker Kendrick Van Ackeren sure made the most of his inaugural start Saturday as the Hawaii transfer headed the Griz defense with 14 tackles - six solo and one for loss - and a sack while his strong side counterpart, converted safety Herbert Gamboa also registered double figure stops (10).

A quartet of the top six tacklers at Laramie were new starters as Montana sacked Colby Kirkegaard six times and turned in nine tackles-for-loss.

With Tonga Takai's recovery of Tyrome Holmes' forces fumble and Jeremiah Kose's pick the team that led the league in takeaways last year starts the season at plus-two in that all too important category.

Although Stephen Shaw had a punt blocked when the Cowboys sent the house, three of his eighth punts went for 50-plus, three were placed inside the 20 and his 43.9 average adds to the pace that would set a team all-time net-punt average.

On offense both Grizzly touchdowns both came from newcomers as Josh Janssen hauled in a 26-yarder and Mike Ralston grabbed the 16-yard tackle-eligible scor4ing toss in the back of the Cowboy end zone.

On Saturday rookie head coach Ian Shoemaker debuts his Central Washington University team in Missoula.

The Ellensburg, Wash, group are coming off a 7-4 Great Northwest Athletic Conference runner-up finish and return 13 starters including six on offense and both kickers.

The two teams have met but once but the Wildcats just about pulled the upset in Missoula in 2008 with the Griz claiming but a 38-35 victory in the early stages of a 14-2 National Championship campaign Bobby Hauck's final season in 2008.

The Wildcats won four of five road games last season.

Joe Glenn's South Dakota team is headed Missoula way next Saturday but don't expect to see a look-by from this Montana team as lower division teams have given the Grizzlies plenty of close calls in past seasons.

There were five true freshmen on the road with an expanded travel roster at Wyoming and if thing proceed according to Hoyle some of the group may well see time Saturday. Forty-five of the 69 who made the trip to Laramie saw the field. 

The Weekend That Was

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Like I have said for many a year, the National Champion remains the No. 1 until proven otherwise by defeat as I continued to voted North Dakota State to the pinnacle.

Yet while others voters saw it differently anointed Eastern Washington University to the top after the first-week victory over Sam Houston State, voters realized the error of their ways after the Bison broke Montana's shared mark for consecutive victories at 25 by thrashing Iowa State for their fifth straight victory over an FBS opponent.

But it was by no means unanimous as NDSU outdistanced the Eagles by 30 first-place nods and 26 votes.

The 20-point win at Ames sent a strong message that while the Bison lost a dozen starters and 12-year head coach Craig Bohl, they remain an entity to respect.

The Griz will find that out early when they travel to Fargo Sept 20 after home games against Central Washington and South Dakota.

Bethune-Cookman registered an FBS victory with a two-pointer over FIU moving to No. 18 in the weekly list comprised this week by 156 voters including 18 with Big Sky Conference affiliation.

Both Montana State and Northern Arizona fell two spots after losses, the Cats to No. 20 and the Jacks to 25.

Bison defensive end Kyle Emanuel claimed Sports Network Defensive Player of the Week honors with nine tackles, four for loss, as part of a defense that held the Cyclones to just 102 rushing yards.

The return trip from Wyoming wasn't without a short delay but even after two weather stoppages and a bit of a hold on the tarmac in Laramie the Grizzlies still were back on the ground via charter in Missoula slightly prior to 10 p.m.

The opener was quite a defensive struggle with combined offensive states (554 yards) about equaling what one has come to expect from one league team in a Big Sky Conference matchup.

Jordan Johnson's 185 passing yards propelled him by Drew Miller and into eighth in all-time passing in just 27 starts while Travon Van, who lined up both as a back and receiver, hauled in a career-high nine receptions.

Ellis Henderson, who status for the game was doubtful, made the most of his field appearances, with at least three of his five receptions converting important third-down opportunities.

Buchanan candidate Zack Wagenmann was radio's Player of the Game and his two sacks moved the Missoula senior into a tie with Trey Young (22) for seventh all-time and further in reach of the late Tim Bush's leading mark (30).

Griz games start at eight different times this year with Saturday's home opener vs. Central Washington scheduled for kickoff at 3:30 p.m.

A look back at the Griz vs Wyoming game

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One had to expect the unexpected approaching Montana's opener Saturday at Wyoming.

But I certainly was not prepared for not only the extra time that it took to determine the outcome because of a pair of weather stoppages that left few in the stands and seemed to ping pong momentum and emotion back and forth like the volley of a tennis ball.

And when the team charter sat idling on the tarmac at the Laramie airport after the game, well you know it was just one of those games.

The Grizzlies just couldn't survive a pair of Wyoming rushes scored in the third quarter after lightning near War Memorial Stadium about doubled the halftime intermission.

Montana sported a three-point halftime advantage after wide receiver Ryan Burke took a pitch from Jordie Johnson and connected in the far end zone with Missoula Loyola's Josh Janssen 26 yards out in the opening third of the second quarter.

Late placekicking insertion Harrison Greenberg hit the upright on the PAT attempt to leave the halftime score at 6-3.

But the Cowboys benefitted from strong blocking at the point of attack and some missed tackles to put up a pair of TDs in the penultimate quarter to take an 11-point lead and while the Grizzlies made it interesting with a scoring toss from Johnson to Eugene Oregon Shelton High counterpart Mike Ralston on a tackle eligible set near the halftime way mark of the fourth quarter the two-point attempt was unsuccessful and Wyoming claimed the five-point decision.

But there was plenty to hang their hat on especially with Montana putting itself in a position to win in the final stanza and allowing less than 300 yards to an FBS opponent.

The game marked the inaugural appearance for at least 10 players and the Grizzlies claimed the turnover column with a fumble recovery and a Jeremiah Kose pick that turned back a Wyoming red zone opportunity after the block of a Steven Shaw punt.

Montana knew they had to effectively rush the ball against the Cowboys but with a completely novice offensive line they only were able to gain about two yards a carry on 19 attempts.

I am sure not into moral victories but there is plenty good to be said about how Montana performed.

Griz "O" vs Pokes "D"

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In the season opener Saturday Wyoming looks to bridle a Grizzly offense that averaged slightly north of a half dozen touchdowns a game last season.

And the way an untested Montana offensive line handles the trenches will be a determining factor as the Grizzlies look to defeat the Cowboys for the first time in 13 meetings.

We're on the road to Cheyenne for tonight's stay then on to Laramie Saturday for the kickoff of 2014 Grizzly football.

What a career challenge this will be for the three sophomore offensive linemen, center Ben Weyer and tackles Jackson Thiebes and Devon Dietrich.

At an average weight of 275 with the Hines twins, Jordan and Logan, tipping the scale at 285 and 290 respectively, this may be the lightest O line to start a Griz game in many a season.

But don't think they won't be poised for the challenge of an imposing Wyoming front-seven that promises to be plenty quick and effective off the football.

The group is headed by Eddie Yarbrough, a team co-captain, first team all Mountain West as a sophomore, and on the Lombardi Watch List honoring the top down lineman.

He topped the league's tackle list for defensive linemen (7.4p/g) and wreaked havoc with 13 tackles, two for loss, in last year's season opener against then No. 18 Nebraska.

On the other side Sonny Puletasi, who doubles as an outside linebacker in the 3-man front, is on the Butkus pre-season Watch List, while Jordan Stanton was third in the nation in tackles last season (11.2 p/g) in earning honorable mention all-league status.

Another key on a defensive unit that returns nine starters is senior outside backer Devyn Harris who gained an extra sixth season, as did defensive tackle Pat Mertens, after losing a season to injury even after burning a redshirt season.

The Grizzlies have to be able to run the ball effectively and the Cowboy defense has been porous at times in allowing some 220 yards an outing on the ground and 482 yards overall in compiling a 5-7 mark.

But their losses were at Nebraska, Utah State, Boise State, San Jose State and Texas State, besides home defeats at the hands of No.16 Fresno State and Colorado State saw the Cowboys out manned particularly after the intermission.

Wyoming won four of six at War Memorial Stadium last season and have claimed nine straight home openers.

Maybe through rose-colored glasses but I'll take the good guys. 

A Look at the 'Pokes Offense

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Well the first radio show is in the books and our first player guest Buck Buchanan candidate Zack Wagenmann  did an amazing job just as all the athletes do, the itinerary has the Grizzlies jetting their way to Cheyenne Friday and the 2014 University of Montana gridiron season is not just approaching, it's here.

Time for just a glimpse, a taste if you will, of what you can expect Saturday afternoon.

Being the optimistic guy I am, especially about all things Griz, except for the scholarship level I don't have a huge disparity between the Cowboys and Montana.

Of course Wyoming is an FBS school playing in their home opener which they seldom lose - they have won 10 of their last 11 - and Montana I'm sure is considered the underdog but this isn't Tennessee, Iowa, Oregon or Kansas State, past Griz FBS opponents.

Since 2001, Wyoming has hosted 11 FCS opponents, prevailing over all but Cal Poly in 2012 but the matchups at War Memorial Stadium have been anything but walkovers.

Although they dominated Northern Colorado last season (35-7) and Texas State (45-10) the previous year, the five previous games were settled by a total of 21 points.

In two games against Weber State, Wyoming prevailed by a TD and a field goal.

You can expect new head coach Craig Bohl's inaugural team, especially given some of the coaching staff that accompanied him from North Dakota State, to display the same kind of philosophy that was successful in winning an amazing three consecutive FCS championships.

While their offensive line has a single senior and starts two underclassmen, they average just a pound south of 300 and have accompanying stature.

And if you watched NDSU's dominance of Furman in the trenches in the chipper last year, well these guys look like cookie cutters of that group.

The Cowboys will lead on the ground with fullback Drew Van Maanen paving the way for junior running back Shawn Wick who posted a quartet of 100-yard games last year while rushing for 979 yards.

Redshirt senior Colby Kirkegaard starts just his second career game at quarterback and will have senior receivers in Jalen Claiborne and Dominic Rufran, who is on the Fred Biletnikoff watch list as one of the nation's most threatening receivers.

But there's a reason eight of the top 12 players listed in their press info are on defense.

Check out that side of the ball in Friday's edition.

#GRIZvWYO

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Montana's matchup with FBS Wyoming on Saturday is one of the Big Sky's 17 such challenges this season and each of the league's teams has such a game on their schedule.

The Grizzlies are just a couple of days from jumping aboard a charter jet for the 800-mile trip to altitude and a Saturday afternoon meeting with the University of Wyoming.

On just two of 16 meetings last season did a league team pick up a victory over an FBS with Eastern Washington's surprise in Corvallis and Southern Utah beating South Alabama.

One could easily argue, I opine, that such regional teams as Wyoming, Idaho, Utah State and Washington State should be meeting Big Sky Conference teams but many leagues don't allow it. Of course wins over FCS teams don't count toward bowl eligibility and we all know that is the buzzword of the day because of the chance for increased revenue and job security.

Cowboy head coach Craig Bohl is a defensive guy and in winning 43 of North Dakota State's last 45 games including three FCS titles, that stalwart has served him well.

And in returning nine defensive starters and two specialists, the cupboard isn't exactly bare in Laramie.

But while six of the nine top sack masters return to the Mountain West Conference school, let's just say that side of the ball wasn't exactly productive last season.

Opposing teams completed 69 percent of their pass attempts, one of the worst pass defense stats in the country.

Fans are excited though about the Cowboys and the game promises to be a near sellout with no doubt a share on Griz nation making the trip not just from the Treasure State but also Wyoming, Utah and Colorado.

One thing that is certain for the Griz is the rushing attack with fullback Jamal Wilson leading the way for seniors Jordan Canada and Travon Van, who also will line up as a dangerous receiver.

There is more than a realistic chance that junior receiver Ellis Henderson won't be a go and that puts the onus on Jamal Jones as the go-to with other receivers, except tight end Mitch Saylor,   with no game experience.

I also would not be surprised to see redshirt freshman Mike Ralston in a twin tight end, fullback look.

Tomorrow we will be looking at a Griz defense that is more than capable of dominating any opponent on the schedule.

A Look at the Big Sky

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Well I always say after a team wins the championship they deserve the No. 1 accolade until it is proven otherwise with a loss but I'm here to tell you Eastern Washington sent a strong message in its opening domination of Sam Houston State to make sure poll voters cast a glance their way when regular season voting begins in a week.

Just a reminder tonight (Tuesday) is the inaugural broadcast of the Mick Delaney Show from the new location at Brooks and Browns in the Holiday inn in downtown Missoula.

It's a lively new format that includes a player segment and of course an opportunity for youngsters - or adults for that matter - to get a picture and an autograph in addition to hearing everything Griz football. The one-hour long affair   gets going at 6 p.m.

And now back to those pesky Eagles, the overwhelming selection to claim another Big Sky Conference crown.

After an intermission tie at 21, Eastern Washington dominated the Sam Houston Bearkats and even tacked on a last minute counter to register a 56-31 victory over their nemesis that had prevailed in three previous meetings.

But of course the Huntsville, Tx. team has had its way with the Big Sky Conference, winning seven straight, six of which came in the playoffs.

Quarterback Vernon Adams exceeded the Century passing mark for the 13th time while tossing a quartet of TDs.

In addition to a 302-yard passing afternoon, he also rushed for 61 yards pushing him over the Century mark in that career category as well.

Just for the record, Adams has thrown for 65 scores (Dave Dickenson is the record holder at 98) in the last 17 games dating back to last season and in running 100 plays tying the school record, the Eagles rang up 624 yards and won their 11th straight home game before a sellout crowd including more than a few interested Montanans

A quick look at the Grizzly two-deep in advance of Saturday's opener at Wyoming especially on the offense features some names Griz Nation fans are not accustomed to hearing.

Sophomores Jackson Thiebes, Ben Weyer and Devon Dietrich join the senior Hines twins while behind Mitch Saylor at tight end are a trio of redshirt freshman.

Maybe as concerning is backups in the trenches where a pair of other sophomores - Clint LaRowe and Todd McCauley are listed.

That is not only as young but also as shallow I can remember a Griz offensive line matching up and how well the newbie young men perform will be a key to Montana's success.

Kickoff 2014

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Along the lines that it seems like just yesterday, here we go. That's right it's game week for Montana football, with the inaugural blog, daily program, coach's show and road trip.

Hi everybody Mick Holien here as the Grizzlies start the countdown for the nearly 800-mile trip to Laramie where they meet the Cowboys for the first time since 1997.

I'm kicking off year 30 of University of Montana play-by-play and can you already tell, I'm excited.

But make no mistake, venturing to War Memorial Stadium, the nation's highest elevated Division 1 facility, promises to be quite an early season barometer of a Grizzly team looking to build on a double-digit win season and their return to the post season after just a one year hiatus.

Wyoming returns 17 starters, nine of them on defense, but sees three-time FCS titlist coach Craig Bohl taking the helm after his amazing run at North Dakota State University.

It promises to be a sellout at Jonah Field where the Cowboys averaged a tad less than 25,000 last season.

The two schools were perennial foes from 1951-1963, with the majority of the matchups contested in Billings. The Cowboys have never lost to Montana in 13 previous meetings.

A member of the Mountain West Conference, Wyoming finished 5-7 last year with one of the victories coming over Northern Colorado (15-7).

But the Cowboys won just 16 league games in Dave Christianson's five-year tenure, bringing about the rift that saw Bohl make the move from the dynasty he headed at NDSU.

Knowing it was a start from scratch, season Bohl has told his 24 seniors they are prime to get this program on track, and will receive rings after the program registers its inaugural league title.

He has brought his pro-style offense so successful in the Dakotas but returns a just a single starter on the offensive line where tackle Jake Jones leads the way with 24 starts.

The remainder of prospective starters in the offensive trenches have just 23 starts among them.

Bookended by the Snowy Range to the west and the Laramie Range to the east, War Memorial Stadium, which features a Field Turf surface, rests at 7,220 feet yet Money Magazine tabbed Laramie as one of the top retirement locations in the country.

In the midst of an 8-4 season in 1997 Montana lost to Wyoming 28-13.

And away we go

 

Let the tourney begin

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There is nothing left for the Montana Grizzlies to do but win because the alternative of course is the completion of the 2013-14 campaign.

It is indeed conference tournament time and in leagues around the country teams are vying to win and move to the next round with the allure of an NCAA berth hanging in the balance.

 

And the Grizzlies know more than their share about tournament action especially in the last two years as they waltzed to the Big Dance.

 

But it is quite a different scenario this season here in Ogden as Montana fell from vying to repeat by claiming a share of the league title won by Weber State all the way to the No 4 seed where Thursday they face No. five seed Portland State.

 

But vital parts of this group have NCAA experience and know the taste of Selection Sunday just three days away and the thrill and excitement of competing on the national stage.

 

But it will be anything but an easy proposition against the Vikings who jumped up and bit league titlist Weber State in the next to last game to enhance their tournament chances to face the Grizzlies for the first time in the tournament.

 

The Viks have won five of their last six games as have the Grizzlies but Portland State is in the midist of a three-game winning streak and riding high.

 

Ironically both teams have claimed a tournament title here at Dee Event Center with Montana claiming the 2010 championship and Portland State winning in 2009.

 

In fact Portland State and Montana have teamed to win five of the last six tournaments.

 

Kareem Jamar is the two-time defending tournament MVP while the Vikings are led in scoring by DaShaun Wiggins, the league's top reserve, who started only 6 games but led PSU in scoring at close to 13 an outing.

 

The Viks won in Portland by a trey in triple OT in a game Montana felt they let get away in regulation while Montana prevailed in single OT by a half dozen

 

PSU head coach Tyler Geving was an assistant when they last won the crown while Wayne tinkle is 9-4 in the tourney with three titles.

 

It promises to be a thriller.

No telling with these two teams playing

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If history is any indication, Thursday night's Big Sky Tournament first-day finale should be a doozy.

 

We are just a day away from the three-day run to determine who will represent the Big Sky Conference in the "Dance."

What is that they say?

You are the champion until someone proves otherwise and while Weber State claimed the regular season crown it is the Grizzlies who are the two-time defending league tournament champions.

And don't think for a minute they are about to surrender the title easily.

But in the opener against Portland State, well since it took four extra five-minute sessions in two overtimes for the two teams to split a pair of games, it promises to be a knuckle buster.

It was a three overtime affair in the Rose City and most recently, on Feb 8, an additional five minute period brought the Grizzlies to a six-point verdict.

So in this win and move-on scenario, look for back-and-forth action with an unpredictable outcome.

Weber State will play the lowest remaining seed which if North Dakota and Northern Arizona hold court would be Montana, if that is, the Griz can dispose of the Vikings.

The last time out, overtime was dominated by Keron DeShields, who scored all but two of Montana's 13 extra-session points and matched Kareem Jamar with 19.

But forward Kyle Richardson got loose for 25 on 10-of-15 from the field and registered a double-double with a dozen, or just about one-third, of the Viking rebounds.

Much like Montana, Portland State plays small-ball with no big force in the low post and while they dominated the Griz on the offensive board last time, for the season rebounding has been a liability.

But while they come off the bench with the big presence of 6 foot 10 Brandon Cataldo, their reserves have been deficient, although backup guard DaShaun Wiggins netted 11 last time around.

The Vikings tend to give up a lot of points and surrender a high shooting percentage both inside and outside the arc making it incumbent for the Grizzlies to take some advantage of second-side opportunities.

Mike Weisner had 16 on six of seven and three for three from trey-land last time and his emergence was key in Montana's five-game winning streak which ended Saturday in Flagstaff.

Let's see if we can get that slipper to fit.

Mick's take on the all-conference team

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There is little doubt that when you win the league you are going to get added recognition from the league's coaches.

Big Sky regular season champ Weber State claimed three of the six league individual awards in voting released Monday.

Swing-guard Davion Berry became the eighth Wildcat player and the first since Damien Lillard to claim the circuit's Most Valuable Player honors.

And while there certainly is an argument for Montana's Kareem Jamar to three-repeat, the senior still reigns as a two-time tournament MVP and that's all still on the table.

And Jamar is just the 22nd player in league history to be accorded first-team honors three times.

Berry scored .4 points more per game than "Ream" but Kareem out-rebounded the senior by more than a carom a game and equaled him with four assists an outing.

But you know it's long been known "to the victor goes the spoils."

The difference is Berry's Wildcats claimed two more victories, the league title and No 1 seed and host spot into the post-season affair.

Jeremy Senglin is the freshman of the year after hitting 40 percent from three and averaging 11.3 points a game and Weber sophomore Joel Bolomboy, who led Weber State to the best defensive stats in the league, was the conference's best defender.

Bolomboy is fifth in the nation in rebounding at just short of 11.

Eastern Washington's Tyler Harvey, North Dakota's Troy Huff, Northern Arizona's Quinton Upshur, the league's newcomer, and Mikh McKinney of Sacramento State rounded out the first team.

Jamar, Huff, Berry and McKinney were unanimous first-squad selections.

But in my opinion the starkest oversight, and no doubt because of the fourth-seed, was the relegation of Jordan Gregory to honorable mention status.

Basically the first squad was made up entirely of guards in a league that certainly was guard laden as Weber's Kyle Tresnak was the only true center honored and he was second team.

But Gregory's contribution certainly deserved more accord than honorable mention which he shared with Keron DeShields.

He stood 10th in scoring, just short of 14 per-game, was second from the free-throw line at 87 percent, shot 44 percent overall and 38 percent from three, was eighth in minutes played and had a 53-38 assist-turnover ratio.

Must deal with the draw

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Inconsistencies that have plagued the Grizzlies often this season proved to be their undoing in the season finale and the resulting defeat to Northern Arizona not only cost them two pairing positions but also put them quite possibly on the champion Weber State side of the tournament bracket.

Here it is on the eve of a bus trip to Ogden, Utah, for the seven-team Big Sky Conference Tournament where Montana will try to three-peat.

But in quite a different scenario this season as Montana enters the tournament on a foreign court and dropping to the number-four seed after seeing a five game winning streak come stumbling to an end in Flagstaff.

The result leaves the Grizzlies to face five-seed Portland State in the first round nightcap and unless there is an upset in one of the first two games if they win would be destined to face the Wildcats in the semi-final round Friday night.

And while the Vikings and Grizzlies have split games they have played an extra 20 minutes against each other since both games were decided in overtime sessions.

While both teams came out slow Saturday afternoon, the Grizzlies trailed by but five points even after connecting on just five field goals.

And in a game Montana never led they scratched and clawed to a tie at 30 with about 16 to play.

But the Lumberjacks went on a 14-3 run and while the Grizzlies cut the lead to one at the halfway mark, they could never get over the hump in losing by 20 and only scoring 47 points.

They suffered their worst shooting game of the season (28.9 percent) and were completely dominated on both boards (40-21) as the Jacks won for the fourth consecutive game.

The Griz bench was outscored 32-9 with no reserve scoring more than three while Kareem Jamar led Montana scoring with 15, the only Montana player in double figures.

NAU snatched 15 offensive rebounds with put-backs and second opportunities contributing to their 50 percent shooting from the field (27-54).

 Guard Quinton Upshur paced three Lumberjacks in double figures as they match Montana's 12-8 league mark but along with North Dakota both have the tie breaker over Montana to claim the two and three seed.

The second time battling Sacramento State

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Last time around the Grizzlies survived a hot shooting Sacramento State team with a torrid offensive performance of their own in recording a 12-point victory.

Montana completes the regular season with road contests at Sacramento and Flagstaff.

Even though they were outboarded and made but five treys, the Grizzlies missed but eight shots in the second stanza in scoring 45 points and claiming an 82-70 victory.

Even though the Hornets shot 54 percent they scored but 27 first-half points and trailed by 10 at the intermission.

The first time around was a game of guard scoring for Montana as Kareem Jamar, Jordan Gregory and Keron DeShields combined for 51 points. or 60 percent of the offense  with "Ream" leading the way with 20.

Chris Kemp began his late-season surge with a then-career high 10 to go along with seven rebounds and the Griz as usual took excellent care of the orb with just nine turnovers.

But the Hornets buzz at home, winning 10 of 11 overall and seven of eight conference outings in the always-active Nest.

They shoot 44.5 percent and average almost 70 while giving up the same amount.

Sac State takes good care of the basketball and fill it up from three averaging more than six a game, but they allow opponents more than seven.

They are ball hawkers grabbing almost seven steals an outing.

One forte may be rebounding, not exactly a Griz strength yet ever improving.

The Hornets have been outrebounded in just one a game, while Montana is minus five in that regard.

Picked in the pre-season to finish seventh and eighth by the coaches and media, Sac State has lost two straight to fall into a four-way tie with a 9-9 mark and still battling to get in the tournament so there is a lot on the line this week for the Hornets.

Portland State, Montana State and Eastern Washington are tied with the Hornets for that sixth spot with ISU a game away.

The Bengals certainly could enhance their chances by picking up a W at Eastern especially with league champ Weber State traveling to Portland.

But it may all come down to Saturday when six teams, including Montana, finish up in the afternoon.

One final week to decide this

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Well we're right down to it and even with North Dakota's victory over Northern Colorado Tuesday, there's a whole lot to be determined in this Big Sky Conference race in the last week preceding the seven-team post-season tournament.

The two hottest teams in the circuit, that's right Montana and North Dakota, claimed victories already this week but while UND clinched a tournament spot and either a two or three seed, with 11 wins the Grizzlies are just knocking on the door and not yet assured seeding or even a tournament berth.

With a pair of road games if the Grizzlies were to fall twice and complete the regular season 11-9 a myriad of tie breaking possibilities would exist especially given that Sacramento, Thursday's opponent, has nine wins, and Northern Arizona, the finale is now 10 and 8.

North Dakota and Montana both have four-game winning streaks while Northern Colorado fell for the fourth straight time.

Even Idaho State, with just eight league wins, has an outside chance to get in and unseat teams above them in the standings with closing wins over both Eastern Washington and Portland State, both teams with 9 and 9 marks.

Already with the host spot secure, Weber State also finishes up on the road at Portland State and Eastern, while North Dakota could match the Wildcats with wins as they finish at Southern Utah.

But Weber owns the tie breaker and thus the host position and No. 1 seed.

After being swept by Montana, the Bobcats are fighting for their proverbial life with road games at Northern Arizona and Sacramento and with a 9 and 9 mark looks to at least have to split to have a chance to get in.

Getting to the 20-win pinnacle looks possible for Weber and NAU, now with 16 and with a good road showing Montana can climb the hill with a good tournament performance but it's bleak for anyone else leading one to believe that the tournament champion, as I've written here before, could be facing one of the two so called play-in games.

And that's sure not favorable for the conference and would be a first.

But it is what occurs when the middle of the league is comprised of teams who beat up on each other.

Southern Utah looking to be the spoiler

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The Thunderbirds are still winless and headed to Missoula for a Saturday contest but it wasn't for a lack of trying.

Southern Utah missed a shot at a streak-breaking victory in regulation in Bozeman but fell in overtime to the Bobcats.

And thus speaks the Big Sky Conference this season as a team with the nation's longest losing streak at 25 games takes the Cats to a five-pointer in overtime.

And with the victory Montana State, Montana's final home game of the season Monday night, evened their season mark and moved to 9-8 in league, a half game back of the Grizzlies.

And since Eastern Washington dropped Northern Colorado, Weber State not only broke the home win consecutive game record of Montana but also clinched no worse than a tie for the league title.

The Bears fall for the first time this season at home after 14 straight victories.

With a victory over Southern Utah Montana could inch closer to the second spot while the Wildcats can clinch the tournament host spot Saturday with a victory over Northern Arizona.

Southern Utah's Achilles has been lack of scoring. They average but a league-worst 59.4 an outing, the result of being the worst shooting team (.431) in the circuit.

But Montana won by just eight Jan. 30 in Cedar City and if Thursday night is any indication second-year coach Nick Robinson still has the Birds playing hard.

And talk about incentive - they can still figure into this league race since after Montana they host North Dakota and Northern Colorado.

It would be easy for this Griz team to look past SUU with the Bobcat game right on the horizon and Tinks said on the radio Tuesday night it is something the coaching staff talks about with their group, not something that goes unsaid.

The Thunderbirds start a single senior, Jaren Jeffrey in the post, along with a quartet of underclassman.

Sophomore forward A.J. Hess leads the T-Birds in scoring at 9.1 with no player in double figures.

Casey OIiverson leads from the field at 55 percent and has seen starting time at both the four and the five.

In Cedar City, the Griz trailed by three at the half but missed just seven of 20 attempts after intermission but didn't secure the margin until about three minutes remaining.

It's senior night and the final home game for league MVP Kareem Jamar and fifth year senior Eric Hutchison.

And it's Fan Appreciation Night as well from 4:30-6:30 in the East Auxiliary Gym. Now really who doesn't enjoy a $1 hotdog?

No room for a Saturday night lull

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When you are just three games better than even and fighting for your post-season livelihood you'd thinking facing a team with the nation's longest losing streak wouldn't be much of a challenge.

 

The Grizzlies have a call-in-the-score game against the Thunderbirds in Missoula right?

Well really nothing could be further from the truth as after 24 straight losses going into Thursday's game against Montana State and being the only Big Sky Conference team already eliminated from post-season tournament possibilities, the Montana trip is of the utmost of importance to Southern Utah.

It's their Super Bowl, their Masters, their NCAA Tournament, it's their season maker.

And I can vividly remember in 1999 under the tutelage of Don Holst when the Grizzlies were facing a Sacramento State game with a lofty losing streak against league opponents - the numbers have faded but it might have been 38 straight - when the Hornets decisioned the Griz by three in the midst of our own seven-game losing streak.

Now while it is true you can't find the Thunderbirds listed in the top few of any team or individual statistical category and they stand last in the nation in RPI yet fourth in the circuit in strength of schedule.

But they played Montana to an eight-point game less than a month ago in Cedar City while holding Montana to one of its lower offensive outputs of the season (69 points).

And quite frankly this Montana team has not shown the prowess that they could afford to look past anybody but with the Bobcats in town two days later in a rare Monday matchup, just like in Bozeman, I suppose while damn if I understand, that taking Southern Utah for granted is a possibility.

You see there are peaks and lulls during a basketball season and while not to demean Idaho State in any way, but some of the lackadaisical effort against the Bengals might have come as a result of an emotional performance against Weber State two days earlier.

ISU had four games in eight days with a short bench but I agree with Tinks that at times it looked like the Grizzlies, with a long bench, were the fatigued team.

To win the tournament you need to play well three consecutive nights and you can't just turn on the switch. Like I often say: It's not yet crunch time but you can see it right down the street.

Time to watch the Sky play out

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Big Sky Conference teams have combined for just 26 road victories thus far this season and it is not a surprise that while the circuit's two front runners have a combined 10 losses, both Weber State and Northern Colorado are perfect in eight games at home.

And like Montana with four games remaining in the regular season, the Wildcats and the Bears are home for a pair of contests this week.

Weber State looks to clinch at least a tie for the title with games against suddenly upstart Sacramento State and Northern Arizona while Northern Colorado tries to gain a split with Eastern Washington and Portland State, teams they lost to earlier in the season.

The Wildcats (15-9) have moved into 25th in the Mid-Major poll while Northern Colorado (10-6) continue to receive votes. Coming into the week, only a quartet of league teams have winning records.

If the Wildcats sweep and Northern Colorado loses one game, Weber clinches the outright title and the host spot for the seven-team tournament that starts March 13.

The surprise team of league play certainly is Sacramento State, which was picked seventh and eighth in pre-season polls. The Hornets are 10-2 in the Hornet's Nest and face Montana the last week of the regular season.

They've won seven straight conference home games, the program's longest Division-1 streak, and at 9-7 are tied for third with Montana and North Dakota. If they finish at .500 or above it would be the first time in Sacramento State's D-1 history and a trip to the tourney would be their first since 2006.

But it's a crucial stretch for the Hornets since like Eastern Washington they play three games this week.

The league moved up a spot in RPI this week but still rank just 25th with the Grizzlies in the league's third RPI position behind Weber and UNC.

Saturday night's opponent, Southern Utah, after winning their first game have lost a nation-leading 24 straight with a game at Bozeman Thursday.

Amazingly three games separate the second place team from the 10th spot.

Time for the home stretch

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The Grizzlies are in the midst of quite a run and it couldn't come at a better time as the Big Sky Conference race winds to fruition.

With a quartet of games remaining in the regular season and winners of six of their last eight, yet still just in a three-way tie for third, Montana has positioned themselves by building momentum for the stretch run.

No one that I have talked to can remember when there has been this much parity in the league this late in the season and especially notable to me is the Idaho State team just defeated by one Saturday holds wins over Weber State and Northern Colorado, the top two teams in the circuit.

But what is even more interesting is that at 7-9 those two marquee wins may not have an opportunity to figure into the tiebreaker since the Bengals will have to finish strong to even make their way into the tournament.

Home court may figure prominently and of course so will who you play in the last 20 percent of the schedule.

The Grizzlies have winless Southern Utah at the end of this week in Missoula, then the Bobcats at Dahlberg Arena two days later before hitting the road with the finale at Sacramento and Flagstaff.

The growth and added maturity of this Griz team over the last few weeks has been encouraging and a testament to the patience of a coaching staff which hasn't had the easiest job this season.

Mario Dunn Jr. continues to amaze me and although he failed to register a bunch of steals in the Idaho State game, his cat-like quickness and sudden emergence as an outside offensive threat is paying dividends and causing opponents nightmares.

But this run goes deeper than any single player and while league MVP Kareem Jamar often is offensively unstoppable just go down the roster and you can pick out a myriad of contributions on both sides of the ball.

But kudos to you the Griz faithful for vocally supporting this endeavor and turning Dahlberg Arena into an imposing atmosphere fueled by student-athletes gathered behind the north bucket-the north end zone "wackos" if you will of the Adams Center.

And you have two more chances ... I sincerely hope you'll choose to be a part of it all.

A fun one last night

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Sometimes winning just tastes more special when it arrives in small doses.

But defeating league front-runner Weber State Thursday night left a sweet taste in my mouth all the way up the Mission Valley to Polson and beyond.

And not just because Montana continued its recent Missoula mastery over the Wildcats but because the Grizzlies played as close to a 40-minute game as they have this season.

And it should come as no surprise that as we close in on the completion of the regular season the Grizzlies lay down their finest effort and set the stage for a stretch run to the post season.

Three consecutive home games are surely not a given and the end-of-season journey to Sacramento and Flagstaff are a steep hill to climb but you know what I have to say about hills and climbers.

With the tournament host spot yet to be determined and so many circuit teams hovering slightly better than .500 and the league's low ranking, I have to agree with my pal Carl Arky, the Voice of the Wildcats, that the tournament winner that receives the berth into the NCAA Championships may come in the form of a play-in game for the first time.

It continues with Idaho State in Missoula Saturday night with a myriad of teams, including the Bengals, fighting for a tournament spot and higher seeding.

Thursday's game was high-energy and fast paced and the kind of game I'd pay to broadcast. It was just a blast and for this guy who had a stroke last summer, made me think while I'm not hankerin' to have it occur, wouldn't it just be a broadcasters dream to go out that way.

Such unselfish play by Montana always pays dividends and of course Kareem Jamar, well he needs no introduction. He is just terrific and Saturday night will move into the top 20 in league scoring as he inches towards Montana top five.

The crowd didn't have the numbers one might anticipate given who was playing but the ones in attendance were terrific and required little prodding to rock and roll. And the student section behind Weber's second-half bucket played a role and I'm sure had fun doing so.

Let's do it again Saturday night.

Kareem climbing up the ladders

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Think about this:

In the 50-year history of the Big Sky Conference just 23 players including Montana's Larry Krystowiak and Andrew Strait, have scored more points than senior wing Kareem Jamar.

And if he hits his 20 point or so average Thursday night in Missoula against Weber State "Reem" will inch within a decent first half Saturday of moving into the league's top 20.

But if you think finishing his career in the top five of all-time Griz scorers is more important to Kareem than how many dimes he dishes as he moves toward the top of that list, you'd be mistaken.

With six points vs. Weber State Jamar moves past Wildcat legend Willie Sojourner and into 23rd on the all-time list but with 386, he stands fifth on Montana's all-time assist list with the chance of surpassing former teammate Will Cherry this week.

And if Montana is to be successful against the Wildcats and then Idaho State, Jamar's contribution in both areas is crucial.

While with an upset overtime loss to Idaho State earlier this week cut Weber's league lead to just two games over Northern Colorado and left them standing three better than North Dakota and Northern Arizona, Weber looks like the team to beat even though they haven't been a great road team and four of their last six are away from Dee Events Center.

Randy Rahe teams have lost just 27 league games in his eight-year tenure in Ogden, just short of 80 percent far and away the league's top standard.

The Wildcats allow just 65 points an outing but Idaho State scored 70 in regulation Monday night and added eight overtime points to secure the upset.

But was the outcome an anomaly or was Weber just unable to solve the zone which I'm sure Montana will employ plenty of Thursday.

Weber has given up just 36 percent from long range during league play but surrendered nine of 18 treys to Idaho State.

Kyle Tresnak is a giant presence near the rim and Joel Bolomboy of course is the circuit's top boarder but I think the Griz bench figures paramount in this one.

Weber is thin there and played Monday night and will play in Bozeman on Saturday.

Montana's won the last four over the Wildcats in Missoula and with just a taste of good fortune, they'll make it five straight.

At stake on Thursday

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A look at the last time the Grizzlies faced Weber State pretty much paints a picture of what

areas must improve for Montana to prevail in Missoula Thursday night.

 

A win over the Wildcats not only presents a prime opportunity to elevate the Griz in the league

standings in the first of four home league games but also brings a myriad of tie breaker possibilities.

Northern Colorado swept the grizzlies, has a win over the Wildcats and more than likely will be

the No. 2 seed into the seven-team Big Sky Conference post-season.

 

But Sacramento State and now Idaho State also beat Weber and currently are tied with

Montana at 7-7 for the last spot into the tournament putting pressure on Montana to also hold

a victory over the potential league champ.

 

And Montana has both Sacramento State and Idaho State remaining on their schedule with an

opportunity to sweep either team since they prevailed in Pocatello and in Missoula over the

Hornets.

 

The last game in Ogden was indeed a dog fight with 15 lead changes and 11 ties before Weber

State prevailed 68-63.

 

The five points I suppose could be traced to the free throw line where the Wildcats had seven

more opportunities and scored that five additional points but that is deceiving given late fouling

by Montana to attempt to cut into the deficit.

After a 48 percent first half, the Grizzlies made just 10 of 27 second half field goals and were

but five of 14 from outside the arc where for the game they connected on nine shots at a 50

percent clip.

 

But Joel Bolomboy, who stands fifth in the country in rebounding, captured 19 rebounds,

including a half dozen on the offensive end, and Weber controlled the glass by eight.

Davion Berry probably is going to get his points and the 25 he scored the first time around is

just five better than his league average but redshirt freshman Kyndahl Hill scorched Montana

off the bench hitting all five of his field goal attempts.

 

A quintet of grizzlies, including a pair of starters, scored just two points while Mike Weisner

provided Montana's bench spark with 17.

 

Monday night ISU matched the Wildcats on the glass and while making eight less free throws in

four less attempts, shot 55 percent in regulation, hit three of eight in OT while the 45-minute

zone of Bill Evans held the Wildcats to 41.4 percent, about seven percent less than their league

average.

 

And ISU didn't allow an OT field goal in the last 2:20 while holding the Cats to just five points in the extra session.

 

But the key was guard Chris Hansen, who netted 27 to offset Berry's 20, and drained all four of his quartet of treys, connected on 8 of 16 overall and added seven consecutive free throws.

With a "W" Wayne Tinkle can move into a tie with Mike Montgomery for second all-time on the career list and while there's still time, Montana would sure like to notch this one in the left hand column.

On another side note, Utah State's Stew Morrill, the former Grizzly mentor, stands one win from No. 600, an amazing accomplishment.

A prime rivalry

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Except for the one season that Northern Colorado claimed the league title Big Sky Conference basketball has virtually been dominated by Montana and Weber State.

The Wildcats are headed to Missoula Thursday for a rematch of the Big Sky Conference tournament championship game in three of the last four seasons.

Now while those outcomes are so unlikely suffice it to say that Weber State won the regular season matchup in Ogden the last seven times the two teams have met but even in 2011 when UNC won the tournament it was the Grizzlies that ended Weber's season in the tournament's semi-final round.

Now granted it was a one-point miracle Griz win in Ogden in the tourney in 2010 when Anthony Johnson stole the show and just a three pointer in Missoula last year but a win is a win and let's face it when it counted most the Grizzlies have been up to the task.

Montana has won the last four regular season matchups in Missoula but Thursday's game is a different animal.

The Wildcats, who were picked by both the media and coaches to displace the Grizzlies at the top of the circuit this year, while not exactly dominate have a solid lead in the standings.

But curiously they lost by 19 at Northern Colorado and suffered a surprising overtime decision at Sacramento State. Then of course Weber State also dropped last night's Montana contest to Idaho State.

But the Wildcats are hitting just short of half of their field goal attempts, allow a league low 42 percent from the field, hold opponents to 64 points-per-game and are dominant on the boards.

Senior Davion Berry, an all-league and all-District performer last year, leads with better than a 20-point average accompanied by almost five rebounds and four assists.

Solid at all starting positions, the Wildcats are anchored in the post by 6-foot 10 Kyle Tresnak yet off the wing Joel Bolomboy amazingly is corralling better than a dozen rebounds an outing in league while contributing almost 10 points.

Along with point guard Jordan Richardson it might seem like they've been in Ogden forever since they both played as true frosh and Richardson is a game short of the league record in games started.

It's all about D especially since the Griz have been porous allowing better than 48 percent in league play.

Join us for the Hoop Show tonight at 6 p.m. from Dickie's Barbecue.

Not enough against North Dakota

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The Grizzlies dropped deep in the Big Sky standings after being swept in consecutive road games by teams they entered the week tied with in the listing.

Montana rebounded from a double-digit deficit to make it interesting but couldn't quite climb the hill in Grand Forks falling to North Dakota 74-69.

UND went on a rampage at the game's start and again after the intermission but the Grizzlies kept working back into the contest and with a trey attempt by Mario Dunn, who put up career scoring numbers, could have been in a one-possession game late in the going.

But it was his only miss of the afternoon and Montana could get no closer than the five points which ended up being the final margin.

Montana missed but 10 of 23 field goal attempts in the second half at the Sioux Center and beat an opponent on the boards for only the third time all season but 17 turnovers along with a dozen North Dakota steals - four each by Troy Huff and Jamal Webb - ultimately spelled doom to drop Montana to 7-7 in league play.

And with four of the final six games at home, it's a case of struggling for post-season seeding to avoid facing the second-place team in the opening round of the first-ever and probably last seven-team tournament.

But with tie-breaker implications still looming with league-leading Weber State coming to town Thursday night a victory over the Wildcats could loom large.

The aforementioned Dunn netted 17 and while just a 60 percent shooter connected on seven consecutive free throws and a near-career high seven rebounds - all on the defensive end - to join a trio of other Grizzlies in double figures.

But UND's leading scorer Troy Huff netted 18 on 15 shots and Jason Nash was an efficient nine of 13 from the field for 19 points to more than offset the Grizzly scorers.

Mike Weisner continued his strong bench play with a pair of treys and a dozen points but he was all there was off the Grizzly bench as four of the other five who played were scoreless and only Riley Bradshaw had a rebound.

Kareem Jamar led the way with 18 but uncharacteristically had six of Montana's 17 turnovers as league play moves into the home stretch.

A tough meeting in Greeley

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It was a game effort for the Grizzlies in Greeley, Colo, but while it took an overtime peiord Northern Colorado survived to win for the 12th straight time at home.

The Grizzlies battled back from an 11-point second half deficit after leading at the half by two and went toe-to-toe in an effort to claim sole possession of second place and avenge the UNC 11-point victory in Missoula.

The Grizzlies in fact had the opportunity to claim the W in regulation as they had the ball with 12.7 seconds to go but as time ran out a forced trey by Kareem Jamar was short and the two teams headed for OT tied at 77.

The Bears outscored the Grizzlies 20-10 in the first six-plus minutes but partially behind the long-range bombs of Mike Weisner Montana kept battling back in a game with double-figure lead changes and ties.

Kareem Jamar was limited to about eight minutes besieged with foul trouble in the first half but led Griz scorers with 21

Often times when a team uses that much energy to try to climb even, especially on the road, they can't quite climb the hill but Montana displayed a load of character to push Northern Colorado to the limit but late in the game and the OT they had no answer for Tate Unruh and several times the defense broke down allowing the Bears to get to the rim uncontested.

Northern Colorado was a torrid 66 percent from the field in the second half and dropped in four of five overtime opportunities while the Grizzlies hit just two of six in the extra period.

"We blew an opportunity here," said Wayne Tinkle. "Defensively we just didn't do a very good job."

Montana got good production at times inside and even though they were cold from long range in the first half, the trey kept bringing them back in the crunch even though they attempted 29 from outside the arc.

Keron DeShields, Jordan Gregory, Weisner and Mario Dunn Jr. all were in double figures with Keron dropping in 20 with aggressive drives to the bucket.

With the Cats winning at North Dakota they jump into a tie with Montana and UND with 7-6 marks.

It's an afternoon game Saturday in Grand Forks with the pre-game at 12:30 p.m.

Battle for second place

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It is a pivotal week for Griz hoop as the winter road beckons.

Montana challenges unbeatan-at-home Northern Colorado in Greeley tonight with at least a share of second place at stake.

In the meantime, Montana State travels to Grand Forks to face North Dakota also tied for the runner-up spot behind Weber State with just two games separating second and 10th in the league standings.

With a W Wayne Tinkle ties Mike Montgomery for second on the career wins list of course far back of arena namesake Jiggs Dahlberg who was at the helm twice and accumulated 222 victories.

In eight full seasons Monty, now the head coach at Cal, accumulated 154 wins in his eight seasons between 1979-1986 while Tinks is on the verge of securing the tying mark with seven regular season games left after tonight in his eight season career.

He also is tied for seventh most all-time in league play with former Gonzaga University mentor Hank Anderson.

But tonight's hill is steep but no hill for a climber you hear.

The Bears are 11-0 at Butler-Hancock Pavillion but have lost four straight on the road since being tied with Weber State for the league lead.

They fell at Portland State amazingly by 23, dropped a four-pointer in OT to Eastern Washington, fell by three to Idaho State and most recently were defeated by the Wildcats by 14.

Senior guard Tate Unruh is the trigger man for the Bears, scoring more than a 1,000 points and averaging a dozen a game while shooting 39 percent from long range.

But at power forward Derrick Barden averages 14 an outing and yanks down better than eight caroms while connecting on 56 percent of his field goal attempts.

Montana has won five of six over Northern Colorado before the Bears defeated the Griz in Missoula earlier this season and have enjoyed good fortune in Greeley winning the last three times there.

But the Bears prevailed by 11 in Missoula the last time around with deep bench play and outrebounding Montana 31-15.

But this is a far different Montana unit since that mid-January matchup and you can bet the Unruh-Barden duo will not net 40 points between them Thursday night.

An important outing.

Teams going in opposite directions

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Remember back in late January after the Grizzlies lost to Northern Colorado at Dahlberg Arena 84-73 to fall below .500 overall and a loser in four of six Big Sky Conference games?

It's been mostly roses since then and ironically the Bears are next on the agenda.

Montana hits the road on this Wednesday flying into Denver for the short car trip to Greeley where a Northern Colorado team has fallen on hard times since they were riding high upon defeating the Grizzlies in Missoula.

The Bears have lost four straight and fell from the league pinnacle, now occupied by just once-beaten Weber State, and into a tie for the league's third spot shared by the Grizzlies.

And while it could be described as teams headed in opposite directions keep in mind Northern Colorado has yet to lose in 11 games at the Hancock Center and with six of eight circuit games at home will figure a strong finish and a building of late-season momentum looms on their agenda.

And while they don't draw huge numbers in Greeley, it certainly can be a raucous and intimidating place for a visiting team.

The Griz have done an admirable job of moving in the right direction and with a trio of road wins made up for a pair of early league home losses and have set the table for a late-season run of their own to the seven-team tournament with the Wildcats very close to clinching the host spot and first-round bye.

And they have done so currently with a four game win streak since losing at Weber, and while they have played superbly at times, Montana has yet to put together a complete 40-minute outing.

Tinks seems to have settled on the starting lineup featuring freshman Mario Dunn Jr. at the point, Andy Martin anchoring the five slot, and junior sharpshooter Mike Weisner playing the best hoop of his Griz career coming early off the bench.

The recent added maturation of JC transfer Chris Kemp also brings a different element especially on the offensive glass which has been a Griz liability.

Montana has a quartet of home games book-ended by four road games before the league tournament in the middle of March.

Tiebreakers and seeding begins to be the talk of the day.

Quite an interesting league race

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Did I tell you this Big Sky Conference race to the tournament was going to be crazy?

While Weber State remains the prohibitive favorite to claim the regular season title and thus the right to host the seven-team post season, everything else is sure up in the air with all but Southern Utah in the chase.

The Griz face one of the stiffest road trips of the season, not just because of the competition with teams sharing their spot in the standings, but because of the sheer travel to Greeley, Colorado, and Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Weber State sports a three-game lead on the field and play six of their last eight in Ogden but nine of the 11 league teams are currently within two games of each other.

Northern Colorado looks to end a four-game slide Thursday when the Bears, winners of 12 straight at home, host the hot Grizzlies, winners of four straight.

UNC's home win streak stands as the 18th longest in the nation.

And it certainly is not too early to start thinking about tie-breakers and Montana has a great opportunity in facing the Bears and North Dakota, tied with the Grizzlies with 7-5 marks.

But the going won't be easy as road teams have broken through just 16 times in 65 league games to this point but Montana has one more road win (3) than any other league team.

And keep in mind the Bears claimed an 11-point decision over Montana in Missoula in mid-January.

The Bears have fallen out of the Mid-Major rankings but stand just ahead of the Grizzlies in RPI as the Griz jumped 31 spots to 193 well back of Weber State's 157.

For the Bears it's all about Tate Unruh and the trey. He stands 13th in circuit history with 211 makes while Derrick Barden is Mr. League rebound and has seven straight double-figure scoring games.

Barden has yanked down 17 caroms in two games this season and averages better than eight a contest.

And the Bears can light it up from the field, leading the league in field goal percentage at 48.8 percent, 14th best in the country.

Montana slightly outshoots UNC from deep and leads the league in that category.

Quite a key matchup.

Returning the favor against Portland State

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The Big Sky Conference is going to be an interesting run to the finish line.

It took an extra five minutes as the Grizzlies went to overtime again with Portland State but this time prevailed to move into a tie with the Vikings and North Dakota, a game out of second.

Montana dodged the bullet because with less than a second remaining the Vikings had a couple of attempts but when the ball finally rang the bucket bell it was just after the buzzer and thus an extra five minutes ensued in which the Grizzlies claimed victory.

And in the first extra period it was all about Keron DeShields who netted all but two of the 13 points to push Montana to a six-point verdict.

DeShields, who got an extended place on the pine in disfavor during regulation and played but 26 minutes put the Grizzlies on his shoulders in the OT and finished with 19 points to push Montana to 6-5, the league mark shared by the Vikings.

PSU jumped Montana at the forefront and moved to a 10-2 advantage less than three minutes into the game but while the score was tied nine times and the lead changed hands five times it was Montana that fought to a 22-20 advantage then an eight-point halftime advantage.

But the same Vikings would not go away and while the Griz led by six with some nine minutes to go Portland State tied it at 60 with three and half to go and it was anybody's game from there.

A DeShields lay-up with 16 seconds remaining gave PSU the last opportunity in regulation but a Kyle Richardson banker came after the buzzer and sent the game to OT for the second time between the two teams this season.

It was back and forth to the regulation's buzzer but Montana never trailed in the OT - it was tied at 71 - and waltzed away with the thriller to win for the fourth time in five games.

Kareem Jamar matched the 19 of Keron and passed Will Cherry on the all-time scoring list with his sights on Wayne Tinkle some four points away while Mike Weisner supplied the first-half offense with 15 points.

Eastern, a blowout victor over the Cats, is next tonight. Pre-game at 6:30 on your way to the Arena.

Signing Day and hoops

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Needless to say Wednesday certainly was an exciting day for Griz Nation as high schoolers made their football intentions and aspirations known.

The approach of Letter of Intent Signing Day always is an interesting time and not just because then it is officially revealed to what institution a player will display his wares.

But it also is a day of validation for the recruiting effort by devoted coaches who have been on the trail for months evaluating where a player or if a player fits into the school's plan and then whether they can convince him or her it is the right decision for all involved.

Many prospects choose to call a local journalist and make a verbal commitment, something the coaches are not allowed to talk about until it becomes official with the arrival of a signed document indicating the official commitment.

And in fact coaches prefer to have a prospect, especially one who is coveted by a host of other schools, to make that verbal commitment in advance even though it is not official or binding believing I suppose that a verbal might cause competing schools to back off.

But in most cases if a blue-chip athlete is that coveted competing schools continue to put on the pressure and quote reasons why an athlete should change their mind instead of signing a Letter of Intent to with the competing institution.

Tuesday was a sleepless night for coaches as they awaited the arrival of teenage signatures that later could determine their coaching future.

Grizzly hoop took a step forward not just in the Big Sky Conference standings with the hard-earned win over Montana State and amazingly at the halfway mark moved within three games of the league lead occupied by Weber State.

No other circuit team has three road wins like Montana but two home losses leave the Grizzlies tied with the Cats at 5-5 instead of even closer to the league lead.

It took an extra 15 minutes (triple OT) in Portland to decide the last matchup with the Vikings in a game where the Grizzlies seemed securely in control but eventually lost 90-87.

The Vikings haven't had good fortune in Missoula, losing 14 of 17 but have won six of seven with one of those wins a 28-point trouncing of then league leader Northern Colorado

Portland State has a game lead over the Grizzlies (6-4) and stand just two games back of the league lead tied with North Dakota and Northern Arizona.

It is always a marathon but we're getting close to the turn for home with every game and every possession seeming to have greater importance.

And protecting the home court at this point is a necessity.

First time for a fire alarm

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The way the Grizzlies came out of the gate at Worthington Arena Monday night, connecting on seven of their first 10 field goal attempts and breaking to a double-digit advantage, when the fire alarm went off one might have thought somebody in the crowd pulled the alarm to break the momentum.

I guess on the return trip from the east, the frigid wintery conditions jumped aboard and came back with me to western Montana. But the brisk wind and chill that dropped game-time temps to double digits below zero didn't slow the enthusiasm of 3,400 in attendance hungry for a Bobcat win recently dominated by the Grizzlies.

And the Bobcats, while they never led in the game, gave them plenty to be excited about with consistent runs to slice down the Montana advantage but to no avail as for every step Montana State took forward the Grizzlies refused to fold and won in Bozeman for the fourth straight time and seventh time overall in the cross-state matchup.

Wayne Tinkle has had their number winning 12 of 16 matchups in his eighth season but it's always a barnburner and this one certainly didn't disappoint.

But at 7:37 p.m. when the lights started blinking, spectators started for the exits, and the fire alarm blared it did cause pause because to send folks out into the bitter cold and teams back to the locker room would not have been a good deal.

In 29 years of broadcasting sports I've seen a lot of stoppages but never a fire alarm and compliments to the MSU staff who quickly determined it was just an electrical malfunction and the veteran Big Sky officiating crew that kept the games stoppage at a minimum.

While the win took Montana to an even league mark at the turn in the schedule, It was far from a complete game as this group continues to struggle with consistency but contrary to what you might have heard on television - I know why you would be listening to them instead of me - it's yet to be determined how this group compares to championship teams of the last two seasons.

Facing a favorable second-half schedule there's quite a ways to go as the Griz play for post-season conference tournament seeding but winning again in Bozeman-now that was priceless.

Griz-Cat tonight

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Already at the league's halfway pole the week kicks off with the cross-state matchup with the Bobcats.

Wayne Tinkle takes his Grizzlies into Bozeman for a rare Monday night game against Montana State.

It sure is a different schedule as the Bobcats won by two in Cedar City Saturday night to return for a Monday home game while the Grizzlies play three games in six days this week but at least the last two are in Missoula.

Being victorious in Bozeman where Tinkle teams are 5-2 in his tenure would pay huge dividends by evening the league mark at five, moving into a tie with the Cats and out of a four-way tie for seventh in the league standings.

Montana State dodged a bullet Saturday night with a two-point win in a game where Paul Egwuonwu, the team's second leading scorer, was dressed yet remained unexplainably on the bench throughout.

MSU is an average shooting team - about 45 percent - but with some 10 players with playing experience. They played nine against Southern Utah.

Tinks sees controlling the glass - an area where the Griz have been challenged this season - as a key to being able to get out on transition, something that has been a Griz staple at times.

And like Montana the Bobcats have not been an effective rebounding team and have been even a little stable in that area in conference games.

Montana is winners of two of the last three on the road while the Cats were mired in a three-game losing streak before the win Saturday in Cedar City.

Controlling Flavien Davis, who is averaging 13 in conference play, is yet another key, according to Tinks. He netted 16 against Southern Utah as the Cats rebounded from a four-point halftime deficit.

Like the Grizzlies the Bobcats have a favorable remaining schedule with six of their last 10 at Brick Breeden Field House.

In beating the team with an 18-game losing streak, the Bobcats were but 19 of 53 from the field and just 3 of 11 from outside the arc where their defense allows more than seven makes a game.

You can bet Worthington Arena will be rockin' but Grizzly veterans have been plenty successful in that raucous environment.

Go Griz but man it is a great day to be a Seahawk.

A gritty win

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It took a gritty come-from-behind effort but the Grizzlies captured the second of three road games with Bozeman next on Monday.

Montana rebounded from a less than awe-inspiring first half effort to upend winless Southern Utah 69-61 Thursday.

After connecting on just seven first half field goals and going to the locker room down just by three a well-timed trey by Kareem Jamar pushed Montana to a 56-52 advantage they would never relinquish.

And once Montana took the lead they put the pedal down with crucial treys also added by Jordan Gregory and Keron DeShields to send the Thunderbirds to their 17th consecutive loss and nine straight in the Big Sky Conference.

And it was DeShields off an Andy Martin block that converted the run-out to push the Montana lead to 64-56 and while Southern Utah clawed a bit from there Montana slammed the door shut to pick up their second circuit road win and balance off the two league home losses.

While the score was tied 11 times and there were 15 lead changes that really doesn't tell the story of the second half as the Grizzlies knocked down five of seven treys and turned the ball over but twice to advance their league mark to 4-5 and even their overall record at nine.

After shooting 31.8 percent in the opening period Montana missed but seven second-half shots in 20 attempts (65 percent) to develop maybe just a taste of momentum headed to Montana State to meet the Cats who must travel to Cedar City for a Saturday game.

Kareem Jamar again led the way with 25, his eighth game with more than 20 points, and added five of the team's 10 assists on 20 buckets.

Yet again Montana was outrebounded (30-24), this time by the worst rebounding team in the league, but they more than offset the disparity by connecting on 22 of 33 at the charity stripe, making more throws than SUU attempted.

Gregory joined a quartet in double figures with 15 while DeShields added a dozen and Mario Dunn scored nine points in the first four-plus second half minutes to finish with 11.

The Montana bench contributed but four points in 51 minutes of playing time but Andy Martin made the most of nine minutes with four rebounds, a bucket, two assists and a pair of blocks.

And the Grizzlies got out on the break four times while making the most of the T-Birds 14 turnovers with 15 points.

Approaching the halfway pole a win in Bozeman could have huge seeding implications and with six of the last eight at Dalberg Arena would well improve Montana's lot.

Southern Utah scouting report

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It's game day in Cedar City and actually quite a favorable deal with Montana's next opponent, Montana State, having to meet the Thunderbirds on Saturday and worry about getting back to Bozeman for Monday's meeting with the Griz.

The Grizzlies on Thursday face the team with the nation's longest losing streak but also one of the least experienced in the country as well.

It's been a disappointing season thus far for second-year head man Nick Robinson who took SUU to a sixth place finish and a league post season berth in his first season.

They were 11-20 and winners of just eight of 20 in league but that got the T-Birds a sixth place finish and a tournament spot.

The season also handed Robinson a finalist spot in the voting for the Joe B Hall Award for first-year coaches and put a couple of players on the all-conference listing.

Coaches picked Southern Utah to finish last this season while the media tabbed them tenth.

This is just the sixth home game for Southern Utah which also can skew a record. SUU is a low scoring lot, averaging just some 56 points a game and shooting 38 percent. Opponents score some 75 points being outscored by that margin the T-Birds are at the bottom of the circuit in that regard.

Southern Utah also is last in the league in rebound margin having been outboarded by almost nine an outing.

Freshman point guard Trey Kennedy is leading the scoring at almost 11 an outing while shooting just 39 percent from the field and just 30 percent from three.

They feature a three-guard look with just a single upperclassman in the starting quintet and junior Chris Nsenki (say Nuh SEN key) is averaging just 2.6 an outing and shooting just 26 percent from the field.

Power forward A. J. Hess provides some of the offense, hitting at a nine-point clip while shooting 39 from long-range.

The Thunderbirds got a bit of a lift off the bench last week when freshman wing McKay Anderson hit for a career best eight at Eastern and followed that with a dozen at Portland State.

But he hit seven of eight shots with six of seven from outside the arc.

Tom Schultz has the call from the Centrum with pre-game at 6:30 p.m.

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Not getting down for Southern Utah

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There's plenty on the table and it won't be easy as Montana visits the team with the nation's longest losing streak Thursday.

Yes it's true the Thunderbirds of Southern Utah, home-based in Cedar City have the nation's longest losing streak at 16 and with but a single win over Arizona Christian.

But they just gave Weber State a run at the Purple Palace, eventually losing 65-59, played Eastern Washington to a seven-point game at Cheney and lost most recently 67-64 at Portland State.

The Thunderbirds played a plenty difficult non-conference schedule featuring the likes of Utah State, California, both of course coached by former Grizzly mentors, Portland, Northridge, UNLV, San Diego and San Diego State.

And while admittedly they have been trounced in a few outings they opened the season losing by just four at North Dakota and like the Grizzlies play six of their last eight at home only interrupted by the Montana swing.

In other words the league's last place team is in the spoiler role and you can bet they'll notch a surprise or two before the season culminates.

Former Stanford standout Nick Robinson has had a rough go in Cedar City, winning just a dozen of 48 outings in two seasons but you can bet he'll have his young team gunning for the two-time defending champion.

Their non-conference menu ranked as the 46th toughest in the nation and second in the league and nicely benefitted their hoop budget.

And it's not easy travel after you land in Salt Lake City and travel by bus a couple of hours north of Arizona.

The Centrum, the Birds' home venue, is a pleasant hoop venue where the Griz have spilt a half-dozen games with Southern Utah before they joined the Big Sky Conference.

One of the youngest teams in the country with a roster boasting just 10 years of collegiate experience, SUU has five true freshmen, three of which have played in every contest.

And while they've been pretty stable with true frosh Trey Kennedy getting the starting nod in all but one game at the point and sophomore A.J Hess at the four starting all but a quartet of games, they're not afraid of going down the bench and using a myriad of combinations.

Don't think by any means this one is an easy proposition.

After I-15 road trip, time to look ahead

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There's nothing like a long bus trip for a team after a big win or a road sweep. The mood is just lighter, the sleep easier and maybe the movie more enjoyable.

But for this edition of Grizzly basketball maybe just part of that was true and they knocked on the door but couldn't kick it down at one of the toughest venues in the league to be victorious.

It's been a decade since the Grizzlies have swept the I-15 road trip and Weber State has captured 24 straight league games at Dee Events Center.

But you might remember that in the last two years in the chipper it was Montana that ended Weber State's season by winning the Big Sky Conference tournament title and claiming the circuit's automatic berth to the NCAA Championships.

That also is two seasons when the Grizzlies lost in Ogden and still produced memorable seasons with just a pair of league losses.

But winning at Weber could have had gigantic seeding possibilities in the post season tournament because I see few teams with an opportunity to win there making it figure prominently when it comes to the tie breaker.

But now at 3-5, yet with a critical road breakthrough at Idaho State, the Grizzlies approach the halfway pole and facing games at Southern Utah and in Bozeman before getting back to the home confines.

But the tough early-season road run leaves the Griz playing six of their last eight at Dahlberg Arena where the crowds have increased and they've proved it can be as tough a venue as anywhere in the league.

Saturday they could have thrown it in, down by eight with five or so to go. While trailing just by four at the intermission, they battled gamely after tying the game at 50 but the Wildcats jumped to a nine-point lead and while the Griz trailed by just four with 1:40 to go couldn't get it to a one possession situation to make things interesting.

But while they netted nine treys - three each by Jordan Gregory and Mike Weisner - field goals in the crunch came hard as Montana shot just 37 percent after the break.

Cedar City and Southern Utah await Thursday night.

A come from behind road win

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There are no such things as must wins with this many games to go but Thursday night's come-from-behind Griz victory in Pocatello was indeed meaningful.

The Grizzlies moved into a tie with Idaho State in the Big Sky Conference race with 3-4 records.

Montana maintained its recent mastery over the Bengals by rebounding from a nine-point first half deficit to pull away at the end prevailing 59-54.

For Idaho State it was the second league loss in four days after falling to Weber State at Ogden on Monday.

Tied at 52 with two-plus minutes to play the Bengals moved to a bucket advantage but wouldn't score from there as a late trey by Mario Dunn Jr, who started for the second time in his career, sealed the deal.

It was league MVP Kareem Jamar who took the helm in practice this week being outspoken about his and his team's efforts to this point in the conference race and voicing leadership.

So maybe it was ironic that for the first time this season Jamar didn't score in double figures instead distributing and getting his teammates involved and in better offensive position.

Jamar did score seven points but it was his nine assists that jumps off the stat sheet.

"Kareem was very unselfish," said an obviously excited Wayne Tinkle in the post game radio interview.

And while junior guard Jordan Gregory couldn't buy a trey early on missing four of his first five, he kept shooting and his consecutive quartet of threes played a huge role in the second half comeback.

He finished five of nine from outside the arc and led the way with 21 points.

Tinks described it as "a great team win ... a chemistry builder" if you will and with the win the victory makes up for one of the two league home losses.

It was the first home loss for the Bengals and it was interesting to me that given the win streak they moved the game to what sounded like a loud Reed gym but then again I've always been too superstitious about stuff like that.

Keron DeShields continued his double-figure barrage with 13 as the Griz went to the charity stripe just six times connecting on five and being outrebounded by just two.

Weber State is up next Saturday night.

Road swing starts tonight in Pocatello

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One thing is for sure. This Bengal will be ready for a Grizzly

The Grizzlies open a critical four-game road trip in Pocatello Thursday night.

Now mired well off the top of the Big Sky Conference after dropping four of their first six league games and probably even more importantly giving up a pair of home games, Montana's not yet on life support but you just can't underestimate how critical each game has become.

And while travel to Pocatello and Ogden isn't as challenging as some road trips it's still face time on the Interstate in a Beachliner for a five-plus hour jaunt to Pokey followed by an additional couple of hours journey down the road to Ogden.

And after an overnighter return on Sunday, that's home to Missoula about 4 a.m., it's back on the road to Cedar City on Wednesday for a Thursday night matchup before finishing up the quartet in Bozeman on Super Bowl Monday.

Former Griz assistant coach Bill Evans is at the helm at Idaho State and the Bengal record (3-3) shows he has the Bengals with fire in their eyes.

And while ISU has been playing inside expansive Holt Arena - you know the mini-dome where they are averaging about 1,600 - the Montana game has been moved back to the far more intimate Reed Gym where you can taste and smell the crowd as well as hear them and provides quite the home-court advantage.

Now don't get me wrong as far as I'm concerned it's a far better environment to play in but there's no doubt it's extremely difficult to win there.

ISU gave league leading and pre-season favorite Weber State all the Wildcats wanted Monday night in Ogden trailing by four at the half and while the Wildcats held a 12 point lead with 6:26 to go eventually prevailing just 65-59.

In fact the Bengals trailed just by two with 46 ticks remaining after a pair of treys by sharpshooter Chris Hansen but could get no closer.

ISU is a good rebounding team especially on the offensive end, Weber dominated the glass by 11 while Hansen dominated the scoring with a 27-point effort.

Count on hearing all zone with the Bengals and how the Grizzlies attack it will be key but it's not like that is a surprise as it is Evans' staple.

Season is not lost

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While it certainly is gut check for this Grizzly men's team the season is by no means lost.

Montana fell into at the very least a temporary also-ran status in the Big Sky Conference race after losing for the second time at Dahlberg Arena.

Now if you think interviewing any coach is an easy proposition after a disheartening loss, let me be the one to tell you it is extremely difficult.

But it's more difficult, in my opinion, for the person who has been directing the action for the last 40 minutes of playing time, all the while using every tool in the shed to claim victory and have a team not only execute the game plan but make the right decision yourself the majority of the time.

I have been fortunate because having asked my share of dumb questions after a loss, I have never had a coach give me that "Mike Leach" look and proceed to call me out.

But that all aside what about Saturday night..

Some two-plus hours after the game Tinks already was utilizing social media with a Facebook posting asking the more than 4,000 fans who showed up for Saturday's game not to give up on his team even given the shaky start and assuring fans that they'd find their way back and make the town proud of them before the season was completed.

The margin is so slight between a win and a loss and so many times in that record-setting 19-1 conference season last year a game turned on a call or a shot or a situation in Montana's favor.

It doesn't mean those teams were any better prepared or in most cases played harder or even were luckier. It just means that's how it goes when a game can turn on a dime.

The Grizzlies Saturday night had two open treys by their best shooters in key situations that may have completely changed the game's outcome.

They were in the midst of a run-out bucket when a foul was called coming out of a melee under the Grizzly hoop that would have cut the deficit to six.

Instead it turned into two free throws and a double-figure Northern Colorado lead.

To get to the show you just have to get rollin' and it's not too late. Hang in there.

Games start to get more critical

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The Griz dug themselves a hole with the home loss to Northern Colorado especially since they now venture ointo the road for four consecutive games.

Losers of two home games among four conference losses in six games, the Grizzlies simply will be fighting for their very existence every time out from here.

Road wins have been a rarity thus far this season and there will be few if any road sweeps as the season winds to conclusion.

And while a quest for a third championship is not out of the question, a win in Pocatello Thursday night against former assistant coach Bill Evans' Idaho State squad almost becomes a necessity.

Northern Colorado with the addition of Dominique Lee who did not play Thursday against Montana State because of an "academic issue" not surprisingly played quite differently than the team that scored 55 points in Bozeman two nights before.

And what has become a Montana mantra this season - a slow start - again reared its ugly head as the Bears jumped Montana from the get-go and although they cut it to a one-point deficit at the half, the Grizzlies had the lead few times and seemed to be scratching to stay close throughout.

Montana led the game for the last time 44-40 two minutes after intermission but the Bears answered with a five-point run and were never again caught.

The tandem of Kareem Jamar, Jordan Gregory and Keron DeShields continue to produce the bulk of the offense and accounted for all but 14 of Montana's 73 points and the trio as is customary all contributed in double figures.

With 23 Jamar moved past Jordan Hasquet into eighth on the career scoring list and on several occasions dished dimes that took other players to the rim but on many occasions to no avail.

DeShields added 29 and Gregory 17 and each junior scored in double figures for the 12th time in 15 games this season.

But after showing post presence on Thursday in the victory over North Dakota with 16 points and 8 rebounds from the five-position alone, there was nothing going Saturday night.

But the 23-4 second-half rebound disparity spelled doom with second-chance opportunities eventually proving fatal to any Montana comeback.

Just remember the league race is not a sprint and a ways to go before we sleep.

Back in Dahlberg against North Dakota tonight

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On dot the league's best will test the Grizzlies at Dahlberg Arena Thursday night.

Senior Troy Huff from Milwaukee is one of just two players nationally to rank in the top 20 for scoring, where he merely averages 21 a game, AND steals, where he is 11th with 2.6 per game.

And Huff has enjoyed plenty of success against the Grizzlies scoring a total of 47 points last year, 23 of which came at Dahlberg Arena in a 20-point February loss.

Picked second and third by the media and coaches, North Dakota has fallen three straight times to the Grizzlies in Dahlberg Arena.

But they captured a league tournament game here last season defeating Southern Utah before losing a heartbreaker to Weber State in a game they easily could have won.

But they're off to a bit of a rocky start, much like Montana, this year but their pair of league losses were by a dozen to Weber State and 18 at Greeley against league leading Northern Colorado.

Winners of just three of 10 in the non-conference, they really don't have a quality outing except maybe a seven-point failure to South Dakota State.

Huff has led North Dakota in scoring in 10 of 14 games this season and has paced the group in scoring and rebounding in the same game eight times.

They return four starters to a team that features three of the top ball hawkers in the circuit and Jamal Webb's first point will place him in elite company with Huff and Aaron Anderson with 1,000 points.

Webb, meanwhile is the first program player to record 200 steals and just the fourth to drop 400 dimes.

Texas Tech transfer Jaron Nash, while only scoring in doubles once for the Red Raiders, has reached doubles 14 times for UND and is contributing some dozen points an outing.

UND seldom makes a trey and shoots an average percentage yet they give up 48 percent from outside the arc and every other shot inside.

But they get 11 steals a game and turn the ball over just eight times an outing.

Everything points to the Griz getting it going with high powered Northern Colorado headed this way Saturday.

Meet North Dakota

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Before the Grizzlies host the highest scoring, best shooting and rebounding and stingiest team in the Big Sky Conference when league leading Northern Colorado comes to Missoula, Montana faces the circuit's top ball hawkers when North Dakota visits Dahlberg Arena.

North Dakota merely steals 11 rocks a game and gets eight more turnovers than their opposition, which should indeed be interesting since the Grizzlies seldom turn the ball over double-figure times.

In UND's Jamar Webb's 46 games he has already grabbed 100 steals with Troy Huff just five back of the century mark with 95 thefts in just 39 games.

Huff, Nash and newcomer Jamar Webb are three of the league's top five in steals per game, while Huff stands 11th in the country.

The Griz are the league's tops averaging just 10.3 turnovers an outing, one less than North Dakota, which is ninth in the country in turnover margin, about three better than Montana.

Now in senior Huff you have the league's most prolific scorer who at 21 an outing also is 21st in the nation, while Nash is fourth in the league in shooting at almost 53 percent.

Huff has scored in double figures in 10 straight games, three less than Montana's Kareem Jamar who has been in doubles in every Griz game this season.

Talk about numbers Huff dropped 37 on Wisconsin, 33 against North Dakota State and 30 against South Dakota State.

Home court is at a premium thus far this season, just the opposite of a year ago with visitors winning just four of 21 outings. With the road dominance of Weber State and Montana especially last year that was far from the case.

With two dozen straight home wins Northern Colorado has the nation's 24th longest win streak but the Bears also are the only Big Sky Conference team not to play a road game. This marks the first time since 2010-11 that UNC has started the season at 4 and 0.

Counting a three-game regular season run at the end of last season the Bears now have won 10 of their last 11 league tilts.

The Montana trip will prove as a testing ground and the Grizzlies getting them the second night certainly is an asset.

Up and down the Big Sky Conference

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Well here we are already 20 percent of the way on the season's journey to the league post season and the team forecast by prognosticators to finish fourth in the league standings is the sole unbeaten and sitting with a one-game league lead.

Of course early in the season it always is a case of who has played whom and where but Saturday's Griz opponent Northern Colorado has already proved their mettle and are the only league team with double-digit wins.

Of course the Bears are unbeaten on their home floor in nine outings and stand but 1 and 3 on the road while the Grizzlies have chosen to play but half dozen home games and have tackled a schedule meant to hone their skills for the rigors of the league in February.

And while it is no surprise that Weber State is winners of three of the first four league games, the Cats, picked fifth and sixth in the polls come back to Bozeman this week also winners of three of the first four.

Thus far the surprise for me is Northern Arizona, whose victory over Montana in Missoula boosted the Lumberjacks, who were picked far down the league standings, to winners of three of its first four after last night's domination of hapless Southern Utah..

But another team to keep your eyes on is Bill Evans and his Idaho State squad.

Pollsters completely missed by picking the Bengals as one of the league's worst and with a single game in Pocatello against Southern Utah, Evans' former employer, don't be surprised if ISU moved closer to the pacesetters by week's end.

This is a pivotal trip for North Dakota, highly regarded by voters in the pre-season but unimpressive as of yet.

While they beat the Bengals by just four last week, UND has just split four league games and stands just 5-9 on the season.

Equally pivotal are the games against a pair of North teams for the Grizzlies as they look to bounce back from what has  surely been a rarity - a league road losing sweep.

Triple OT defeat to Portland State

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It took the better part of 55 minutes but Portland State broke a nine-game losing streak to Montana in defeating the Grizzlies 81-78 in triple overtime Saturday in the Rose City.

It's been some three years since the Grizzlies were swept on a Big Sky Conference road trip but then again that's how it goes when you dominate the circuit like two-time defending champion Montana has the last two seasons.

But the first league win for Portland State also marked the third league loss for an admittedly struggling Montana team that faces highly regarded North Dakota and Northern Colorado in Missoula this week.

This one should have been over several times as the Vikings went on a 10-1 run at the end of regulation to force the initial extra period.

The Grizzlies made up a seven-point deficit with a run culminated by a conventional three-point play by Eric Hutchison to force an additional five-minute period.

But in the third session the Griz had no answer for Gary Winston Jr. who scored all nine points for the Vikings

There has never been a lack of drama on the Portland State campus at the Stott Center on the Park Blocks over the years.

It seems it is one of those locales where controversial calls always pop up, play is aggressive and physical and close games are the usual rather than the exception.

What was unusual was triple overtime which hasn't occurred for Montana since it occurred twice in the 93-94 season.

Jordan Gregory continued to put up exceptional scoring outings for the Grizzlies with 25 points while Kareem Jamar scored in double figures for the 13th straight game with 19 although he scored but five points after the Intermission which saw the Grizzlies trailing by just one point.

Keron DeShields contributed 17 points while true freshman Mario Dunn Jr. stacked his stat line with six points and career highs in rebounds with seven and assists with nine.

Out rebounded by just one, like at Eastern Washington, the smaller lineup seems to be the direction this team is headed although "Hutch" did contribute 26 minutes and contribute seven points and three boards.

Eastern Washington Eagles

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After a quartet of road games there are fewer teams than Eastern Washington that's pleased to be back in the home confines in Cheney for a four-game stretch.

It sure hasn't been much of a stretch for the Eagles who have lost seven straight games and come into Reese court winners of just four of 13 outings.

Picked to finish sixth by the media and fifth by the coaches, barely ahead of Montana State, the Eagles have been beset with injuries, traveled to New Jersey, Connecticut, and Utah as well as Idaho since beating Seattle University in November and that certainly couldn't have helped their confidence much but they feature the League's second highest scorer in Tyler Harvey, who gets some 20 a game.

It has been all about shooting for Eastern Washington as they are unbeaten when they outshoot an opponent and winless in eight games when they don't.

As for Harvey, a sophomore from Torrence, Ca., he dropped 30 on Weber in a loss last weekend, the 39th top performance in Eagle history and connected on 10 of 17 from the field including four of five from three-point range.

With their schedule Eastern is third in the RPI and has the 39th toughest schedule in the country.

But Eastern is tops in the circuit in treys made, just ahead of the Grizzlies, and leads the league in rebounds and is seventh in rebound margin, of course a real Montana deficiency.

Last season's Freshman of the Year Venky Jois is lending a dozen an outing and leads the eagles in caroms with about eight an outing and has 13 double-doubles in his 41-game career.

Then there is Sierra College transfer Drew Brandon who stuffs the stat sheet with 11 points, six-plus rebounds, five plus assists and more than a steal an outing.

Stopping transition will be key for Montana as the Eagles score 77 a game and you know they will turn it up a notch at home against the two-time defending champion.

And they are plenty stingy defensively allowing but 44 percent and allow just one of three from three-point range.

And in Jois and Martin Seifert they have a couple of the league's best shot blockers although against the Grizzlies, Seifert plays a bit more away from the bucket.

Room to grow, but character of the team will go a long way

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Mark my words on this eighth day of January. We have not seen the true Montana Grizzly team that I have the confidence it will become.

 

For sure there is a long way to go, but there were a number of promising signs in Saturday's victory over Sacramento State, and to a man there is likely little difference in what each player believes about his teammates, his team and his coaches.

 

It starts with the team first and the importance of the name on the front of the uniform and not the one adorning the back. And that's the same for every player, whether it be a starter or the 13th or 14th man down the bench. They all contribute in their own fashion.

 

Every player, when given the chance, will be on the floor giving the utmost of their capabilities, and because of that getting the most of his effort. And every player will define what the utmost effort truly is, whether it's stripping the ball from an opponent or diving over rows of chairs to keep the ball alive.

 

Everybody gets out on the break and celebrates together, whether it be a bone-rattling slam or a soft one off the window, and when the shot clock winds under 10 seconds on the defensive end, sheer frenzy brings the court alive with the deepest of enthusiasm. That's our rock, baby, and we want it back.

 

There's more, of course, but you get the general idea. This is a young group that is going to learn that you can do anything with enthusiasm. So here we go on Thursday night, with Montana's first Big Sky road game at Eastern Washington.

Chase Reynolds

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And away we go - The 50th season of Big Sky Conference hoop is underway and with yet another new look preceding the addition of Idaho to the league next season.

And for the first time in three years, the Griz are not at least sharing a part of the circuit lead.

But a couple of things to remember: Seldom is the league title settled in January and mark my words that before this is all over the season will have been marked a marathon not a sprint.

But make no mistake about what Rams defender Chase Reynolds said during a short visit Thursday night: A team's home venue floor is getting all the more difficult to defend and the talent level of the Big Sky Conference is reaching even greater heights.

Injured part of the season the former Drummond product said it now seems almost unfathomable that he is living the dream of playing professionally after a prep career that has more than its share of "Hoosier" moments.

A deep testament to attributes like fortitude, commitment and courage, just to name a few, he proudly dons that "old-school" designed Rams helmet and joins former Grizzlies Caleb McSurdy and Trumaine Johnson in applying the coaching he took from Washington Grizzly Stadium and that relentless winning attitude to the play-for-pay ranks of the highest level of the National Football League.

Yes they are among a myriad of former circuit players that have taken that stupendous step in recent years to move to that next level, sometimes excelling, others slipping to a practice squad or eventual obscurity.

But you see they lived that dream that started in Chase's case on that school bus rolling back into Drummond from the far corners of the state in the wee hours of the morning, stiff and sore from the contact yet smiling inside knowing, albeit dreaming, that you were good enough and possessed the audacity that you could get there.

His smile Thursday night spoke volumes that any little guy just can't possess that incredible dream, but even live it to reality.

There just isn't a better guy around, who like the majority that come through this program, never will forget what they learned on those bone-chilling nights on the Riverbowl.

 

Griz earn split in first BSC weekend

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Two games in and Griz are a split in the Big Sky Conference race and headed on the road.

The Grizzlies battled through a half-dozen point deficit to build an 18-point lead and send Sacramento packing with a pair of road losses.

But while there was significant improvement in some really necessary areas, Montana was again outrebounded and gave up 50 percent from the field.

But the board deficit was less, although the Hornets are not a great rebound team, and Montana got some much-needed post play that has been severely lacking.

JC transfer Chris Kemp, who didn't even see the floor in the NAU loss Thursday night, was a demon and led the glass with a career-high seven to match an also career-high 10 points.

And while he also had three steals and a block the numbers don't paint the true picture as he was far more active than at any time this season and also contributed immensely on the defensive end in 24 minutes of playing time.

Junior Jordan Gregory played stupendously, fearlessly driving the lane for the majority of his 20 points, swiping at balls on defense, dishing off a trio of assists and grabbing a couple of the team's eight steals while corralling a quartet of defensive rebounds.

And junior Keron DeShields pushed the pace, missed just a trio of 10 shots and turned the ball over but once.

And while "Steady Eddie" Kareem Jamar moved into the top 10 in scoring with his 11th straight double figure game with 14 points, Eric Hutchinson added seven points including five-for-five free throws and Andy Martin added three paired with a block and a steal.

Point guard Mario Dunn Jr. continues to shine with four points, a quartet of rebounds and two assists against just a pair of turnovers, an area that the Grizzlies are among the nation's pacesetters.

Montana has come back of age at the charity stripe and missed but four of 23 attempts and a baker's dozen of players saw game action while the Grizzlies were shooting better than 65 percent after leading by 10 at the intermission.

Again there's plenty to build on and the road beckons for a pair this week, but there was plenty to like.

Lights out for Northern Arizona

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Northern Arizona blew the lid off the Big Sky Conference regular season by stunning two-time defending champion Montana on its own floor.

When you hardly miss a shot in the second half and a player who has connected on about one of four treys in the entire season finds his way to a quartet of long rangers in seven attempts, well you get the idea.

The Lumberjacks, who won eight league games all last season and have but four players with circuit experience, refused to be denied and after trailing by eight points at the half rebounded to an 11-point second-half advantage.

But to their combined credit the Griz refused to quit and cut the deficit to one with a buck and a half to go but the aforementioned three-point shooter Quinton Upshur answered from three and Aaseem Dixon's free throws iced the game.

Montana had not lost to a conference opponent in Missoula since 2010 - a string of 31 games -and of course fell just twice in league games the last two seasons.

Besides missing just five of 22 second-half shots, the Lumberjacks connected on nearly 59 percent from the field for the game, this by a team that came into the building shooting just 41 percent in 11 outings.

But that's what makes college basketball such a great game and in this game witnessed by nearly 4,000 fans. Northern Arizona played far above I'm sure even their expectations.

With his tenth straight double-figure performance and fourth 20-point game this season (21), Karen Jamar moved past Derrick Pope and Shawn Samuelson and into the school's top 10 career scoring list.

But even leading in rebounding with eight and assists with seven, his exploits, on this night anyway, just weren't enough to offset a hungry senior Max Jaconbson, who netted 21 and Dixon's 23-point outburst.

A 30 percent three-point shooting team , the Jacks connected on seven of 11 attempts while the Grizzlies were but 10 of 26, many late in the game to crawl close.

Junior guard Jordan Gregory was the pacesetter from outside with five of 10 treys and 17 points while Mike Weisner and Keron DeShields netted a pair each.

Sacramento State, a 15-point victim of Montana State, visit Missoula Saturday night with again the first 1,000 through the student gate admitted free.

You know, familiarizing yourself with potential players in a Big Sky Conference game usually is a whole lot easier than non-conference foes whose names you've maybe never seen before.

Northern Arizona is in town for the league opener Thursday and I must say after just nine non-league affairs, I've got to do just what the players need to accomplish and turn up my game for the starts of true counters for the two-time defending league champ.

But when one examines the Lumberjacks, who have lost their last seven road games and come to Missoula winners of three of 11 games,  I basically have an entire roster to master before the 7 p.m. tipoff where the first 1,000 through the student entrance get in free.

You see there are just four players with league experience and while second-year mentor Jack Murphy has basically seemed to have settled on his starting quintet there's just a host of players whose names and numbers need to drag me away from the bowl games and hammer into my forehead.

You surely will remember Gaellan Bewernick, the converted power-forward to wing who redshirted last year but has played extensively for NAU and 6-foot 8 senior Max Jacobson, who leads the Jacks at nearly 14 a game also has plenty of Dahlberg Arena minutes.

But while you can make no mistake I'll be ready by tipoff, beyond that I'm scrambling.

Jordyn Martin, a letterman sophomore, has started nine games for the Jacks when 6-foot10 behemoth Len Springs isn't on the floor but this team is going to be one that will have to mesh   quickly if they can climb to seventh in the league as picked by the media.

Now don't get me wrong - You know I respect every opponent and wouldn't ever fashion looking past anybody but this is not your Dad's "recruit to shoot" NAU group since they are averaging just five made treys a game and shooting just 30 percent.

But one thing you can count on, NAU will go to the glass, a spot where Montana has been deficient.

Kareem Jamar can climb into the top 10 in career scoring in just his 101st game tonight and the Griz can put up win No 99 in the last five years and that's plenty of reason to be there.

Conference season to start tomorrow

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It's been a rough non-conference season for Montana's opening opponent Thursday but while Northern Arizona has lost five of six games the Lumberjacks are bound to be stoked for the opener.

Happy New Year everybody as winners of just three of 11 non-conference matchups NAU comes into Missoula for the opener picked to finish in the bottom third of the Big Sky Conference.

And it is quite the revamped lineup for second-year head coach Jack Murphy who starts a trio of junior-college transfers and features a lineup filled with transfers and freshman.

But the Lumberjacks lost by just four at USC and played Fresno State to a four-pointer in overtime.

With five of nine league games on the road in January, it is incumbent that the Grizzlies establish the home-court dominance that has so recently fueled this program that has lost just two of 36 Big Sky games the last two seasons.

But then again in Wayne Tinkle's amazing eight-year career, the Grizzlies have lost just 31 league games and his 85 circuit victories are the most in school history and in the last five league campaigns Montana has been defeated but 17 times.

League MVP Kareem Jamar charges into his senior league season on a roll with nine straight double figure games and 69 in his 100-game career.

Not only has he been a scoring phenom, he is about to move into the top 10 in career assists.

"Ream" now trails Derrick Pope by just four points on the career scoring ladder and is but eight points from moving into the top 10 spot occupied by Shawn Samuelson.

Picked to finish second behind Weber State by the media and third behind the Wildcats and North Dakota by the coaches, the Grizzlies have won four straight after losing four of their first five.

And the lineup continues to develop much-needed depth especially with the recent emergence of true freshman Mario Dunn Jr. at the point and three-point specialist Brandon Gfeller who is shooting almost 44 percent from long range.

The Lumberjacks have been porous on defense allowing 46 percent and being outscored by seven points while turning the ball over an average of 14 times an outing. Remember, the first 1,000 fans get in free.

You still haven't seen his best

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The day's headlights are shining brightly on 2014 a day after Kareem Jamar claimed yet another Player of the Week award this time as a co-recipient after his clutch performance on the road in Moscow Saturday afternoon.

And I think the senior MVP might tell you he has not even approached playing his best hoop in leading the Griz to a 5-4 non-conference mark while netting double figures in all nine outings.

And how does that bode for the two-time defending Big Sky Conference champion?

Premier seasons get increasingly difficult to match and in the case of "Ream," who continues to move up the career scoring ladder in just 100 games, his stat line might tease you into thinking he is playing at the top of his game.

And let's just face it there were times Saturday against Idaho and in similar outings earlier in the season where coming down the lane he is simply unstoppable.

But the California senior has yet to put together a 40-minute outing and at times gets detached on the floor whether it is with the constant off-ball hounding of the opponent trying to keep the rock out of his hands or other personal distractions, he'd be the first to share with you that there's plenty of good times ahead and plenty of fuel in the tank even though he plays as many minutes of a game as anyone in the circuit.

An efficient free throw shooter there have been several times he has been lacking at the line this season and then you see a game such as the one against the Vandals when he misses his first opportunity, then sank 11 consecutive including the tying and go-ahead bucket at the game's culmination.

And he'd be the first to tell you he can play considerably more efficient on the defensive end, an area where the Grizzlies have certainly been lacking even while leading the league in field goal offense themselves.

But when his game is intact he can be as dominant a player as any that has worn the Grizzly colors and already with 98 wins in the last five seasons we've been in the midst of some kind of run.

What amazes me is that Griz hoop, with conference play underway Thursday in Missoula against Northern Arizona, remains one of the best kept secrets around - go figure.

 

A game a broadcaster dreams about

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It was one of those games that as a broadcaster you dream about - and it was a Griz victory.

Montana put a cap on 2013 by taking all but 4.1 seconds of Saturday's game to catch then pass the Vandals and spin a hush over the Kibbie Dome in Moscow.

This one looked like an Idaho victory from the tip and when the Griz fell behind by 15 on the road in the final minute of the first half, you might have thought the Vandals were set to atone for the loss in Missoula earlier this month.

But you know I am a never say die kind of guy and "no hill for a climber" just couldn't have been more accurate in this one as amazing defense and a stupendous coaching strategy coupled with sheer player determination snatched this game from the jaws of defeat and set up the conference opener in Missoula against Northern Arizona Thursday night.

True freshman Mario Dunn Jr. had his hands all over the rock in the final few seconds and Wayne Tinkle held off held of fouling Glen Dean on the sideline with some six seconds remaining, trapping the pass, forcing the former Big Sky Conference Freshman of the Year to call a timeout rather than turn the ball over.

Key was the in-bounds that came from the sideline, not the end-line, and with seven-footer Andy Martin in his face, Dean's inbound possibilities were diminished and Dunn was the beneficiary tipping the ball as it was going out-of-bounds to Kareem Jamar who was fouled going to the hole.

And the league MVP, who missed just his first free throw then connected on 11 straight, calmly sank a pair for the W although the Vandals had a 30-foot attempt that bounced away as time expired.

Jamar offset a career performance by Stephen Madison, who netted 35 points, with his ninth straight double figure performance with a near-career high 26 of his own and the Grizzlies connected on 18 straight from the charity stripe in the second half.

Yes it's just a non-league road win over a weakened WAC opponent but now winners of four straight, it's one more step to maturity, a victory to cherish and one that will remain in my memory for years to come,

Not making the most of an opportunity

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Make no mistake about it, a post-season game can serve as one of the most prized occasions and rewards for a college athlete.

So why do so many players just keeping screwing up the opportunity.

Now I fondly remember those days of old when New Year's Day featured the major bowl games with a pre-cursor on the previous night.

But of course now all you have to do to become what now is termed "bowl eligible" is win a half dozen Divsion-1 games because it takes that many teams to fill up the plethora of games that have "bowl" tags.

Well I have less trouble with that, since you can just completely OD on games involving teams that you may have heard of, but some of the competition and especially the game's culminations have been just flat amazing.

So I'll give you that one - If there are that many sponsors who are willing to throw that kind of money at a football game, have at it - It still probably doesn't mean I have heard of or will likely purchase your product.

But what I can't understand is the number of athletes - many of them premier performers who end up being sent home for the proverbial "violation of team rules" in advance of the contests.

I get it - Going to a game a week in advance many times in sun country and always after finals must resemble just one big "Spring Break."

But whatever happened to your teammates, your leaders, coaches who made sure curfew is at this time, this is what is suitable and appropriate and we are here to represent our program and the institution that has chosen to provide me hopefully with a college degree.

It's not necessary to list the programs or the players involved but it seems every day you read the stream at the bottom of the television and there's one more prominent player who has been given his walking papers and not allowed to perform in what for many is their final collegiate contest.

And for those skill players who have an opportunity to play at the next level, what do you suppose your potential employer is thinking but then again maybe given the level of some of the illegitimate behavior in post-collegiate competition, maybe it just doesn't matter to them.

Well it matters to me...what about you?

Big Sky Conference news and notes

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With just a pair of Big Sky Conference teams sporting winning non-conference records and the start of circuit play on the near horizon, it could be challenging at this point to come up with a league favorite.

Northern Colorado sits atop the league and is receiving mid-major voting consideration and a quartet of teams are hovering around the .500 mark but a half dozen of the league teams have had trouble grabbing a W in non-league play.

As well as the Grizzlies playing Saturday afternoon Eastern has a toughie at U-Conn while Weber State hosts Northern New Mexico and Cal Bakersfield journeys to Pocatello.

The 2-5 Wildcats are coming off a laugher (107-36) over Saint Katherine, the largest victory margin in school history as with the W Randy Rahe moved into a tie with Weber's Ron Abbeglen for eighth on the league's all-time list.

Montana's Wayne Tinkle stands tenth.

League play kicks off Sunday with North Dakota traveling to Northern Colorado in a battle of tournament semi-finalist teams from a season ago.

The Bears are the league's fourth pre-season selection while North Dakota was tabbed second by the coaches and third by the media.

The league stands 24th in last week's RPI just behind the weakened WAC with Eastern Washington's 144 the top ranking.

Montana stands fourth at 194 while the league's non-conference slate is ranked as the nation's ninth toughest.

UM junior Jordan Gregory stands second in the nation in free throw percentage missing just one of his initial 22 attempts while the Grizzlies are the 22nd best field goal percentage team (.493), far outdistancing the Cats (.469).

Montana also leads the circuit with 8.6 treys made per game and is third in the league and 39th in the country shooting .394 percent.

With eight straight double figure games this season, defending league MVP Kareem Jamar is third in scoring (18.9) behind North Dakota's Troy Huff and Eastern newcomer Tyler Harvey.

Kareem also stands second in assists per game at five an outing and is the league's active leader in scoring, rebounding and steals.

But off comes the lid Sunday and up goes the price of poker.

Merry Christmas and next up is Idaho

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A Merry Christmas Griz morning to you from that load of elves that bring you some 400 words of Griz Biz on a daily basis

It always seems like such a short holiday break as UM players branch out to the different corners of the west to share holiday cheer with their families.

And of course for those who can't make it back to the far corners of the country, well they are more than taken care of with nearby teammates and coaches.

But before you know it that Beachliner diesel will be warmed up and jockeying for seats for the short jaunt to Moscow will begin.

It is a bit of a rare rematch in such a short 18-day period with the Vandals, winners of two of three over Big Sky opponents Portland State and Idaho State since falling to the Grizzlies Dec. 11.

Idaho slipped past the Vikings in Portland by one , then just also slipped past the Bengals in Pocatello by three earlier this week.

A couple of days later they dropped a 10-point decision in Los Angeles to Cal State Northridge to stand six and seven on the season with four of those losses and a half dozen of those games on the road.

They also show a victory at UC Davis but probably their top outing was a 67-66 loss to neighboring Washington State.

So the Vandals actually have lost five of their last eight games.

Stephen Madison was an early horse against Montana in Missoula but while he scored nine early points in the post chasing around Kareem Jamar defensively eventually slowed him down on the offensive end.

But Madison is still by far Idaho's leading rebounder (7.4) and leads the Vandals in scoring (16.1) and blocks.

The Vandals are especially strong on the offensive glass, have been outshot by just a few percentage points and turn the ball over about as much as their opponents.

Ironically however the Vandals had just five turnovers in the 79-69 loss at Northridge while the Matadors only gave the ball away eight times themselves.

The difference though was rebounding where Northridge grabbed 14 more caroms and outshot the Vandals.

This is a 2 p.m. game Saturday not like 7 p.m. as your schedule shows so join us for pre-game at 1:30 p.m.

One last tune up before Conference

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Here it is just about conference season for the two-time defending champion Grizzlies but there have been some rough spots in this eight game non-conference season.

 

Happy Christmas Eve to you and go grab someone you care about and give em a big hug right now - No really I mean it.

 

The 4-4 Grizzlies grab just a bit of personal time before jumping on that Beachliner Friday morning and heading to Moscow, Idaho, for a rematch of the 11-point game in Missoula a couple of weeks ago.

 

And this marks the non-conference finale with Big Sky Conference play against Northern Arizona on the schedule next week.

 

This will again mark a good test for a Griz team with a quartet of new players and while returning the league MVP in Kareem Jamar and plenty of starting experience has a ways to go before finding themselves up to the rigors of what promises to again be a highly competitive Big Sky Conference schedule.

 

There were a half dozen ties and four lead changes the first time around and while Montana had five players in double figures led as always by Jamar they were as usual outrebounded although they did shoot well at the charity stripe.

 

Connor Hill is a penetrating load and led the Vandals with 24 points but had Idaho not been 7-of-18 at the free throw line you can bet there would have been quite a different outcome.

That also would have held true had Montana not nailed 9-of-18 treys against Idaho's 7-in-16 attempts.

 

But it was a breakout game for freshman guard Mario Dunn who netted a career-high 11 points and has scored 25 in his last three outings.

 

Mark my words Montana's guard line is the best in the league and there's little doubt Jamar is the circuit's top player but that may not be enough for a repeat championship.

 

You might recall UM-Western just shot 51 percent and scored 74 against a partially-uninspired Montana team that after eight games should be fine-tuning not searching.

 

You know I am the eternal optimist and have complete faith in where this outstanding coaching staff will take this team but Idaho Saturday afternoon would sure be a fine place to get started and a fourth straight win heading into league play also would be a welcome boost.

My weekend watching football

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Ok so I have a confession to make.

 

As most of you know by now I am a Spokane guy and thus naturally some would figure since I attended Eastern Washington back in the NAIA college Savages days, I would be an Eagle, right?

 

Well sure, I was pulling for the Eagles Saturday on the red turf and what a valiant effort they made in losing in the semi-final round at home for the second straight season. I really didn't think anybody could stop the Eagles offensively at the game's culmination but I also didn't expect their defense to surrender the winning drive.

 

But congrats to Eastern for being in the final four for the second consecutive season and I'm with you as far as seeing Vernon Adams and Cooper Kupp for even more matchups.

 

But I digress.

 

The game I really had trouble with was Colorado State vs. Washington State.

 

You see I am a life-time Coug who grew up climbing the fence - that's right climbing the fence - to watch the then Pac-Six Cougars tangle with California powerhouses UCLA and USC at then Memorial Stadium (now Joe Albi) in west Spokane.

 

Of course former University of Montana Athletic Director Bill Moos, a Coug alum, is a longtime pal and the WSU AD and former Griz defensive coordinator Mike Breske, another good friend, holds the same position in Pullman.

 

But then you have upstart Colorado State which is headed by Sentinel alum Jim McElwain who came from Nick Saban's Alabama staff to the head Ram job and has sent Fort Collins on its ear by taking them to a bowl game in just his second season at the helm.

 

The McElwain's have strong Missoula and Montana ties - one sister Janie Haight works in UM Athletics and a second, Mary Sullivan, is a former UM athletic trainer.

 

There was no doubt in my mind that the former Eastern Washington quarterback and Bobcat, Fresno State, and Alabama offensive coordinator would bring CSU to the forefront but let's face it to score 18 points in about the last three minutes, then pull out a Boise-like Statue-of-Liberty for the win will forever forge a place in Bowl history.

 

And besides I've been Couged for years.

Scheduling logistics

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Well you hear it all the time - Why can't Montana hoop get better non-conference competition to play in Missoula and if they did would that return Dahlberg Arena to the raucous days of old?

I'm sure you have heard the refrain - and it's not just true in hoop but in football as well. Why do the Grizzlies play the occasional Division-2 in football or bother with facing off with an NAIA program in basketball.

It really is a horse of a different color.

Financially to meet budget Montana must play a half dozen home football games and with so many traditional UM rivals either joining the Big Sky Conference or moving to FBS there are just fewer and fewer competitive non-conference possibilities.

And while they still have been able to secure a home-and-home here and there they are becoming few and far between, thus requiring UM to say play a Central Washington to venture into Missoula.

In hoop it is quite a different scenario.

Just for example coming off back-to-back 25-win seasons and consecutive NCAA appearances, quite frankly teams are not anxious to play in Missoula where even a higher mid-major program has more to lose than to win.

A program has to get a home game out of a relationship and schools like even Gonzaga University want two games at their place in return for a single visit to Missoula and expect the series to start at their house.

It isn't easy to travel to Missoula and also is expensive and while you would like to attract schools with prominent FCS football programs whose names are recognizable to fans - McNeese State, Youngstown State come to mind - they're not going to travel a time zone or two that then unbalances their home schedule.

We all remember tournament play like the Champion Classic which attracted outstanding fields but large incentives are required ($80,000 and up) to attract those kind of programs and without sponsorship with deep pockets, well you get the idea.

I wasn't a plan of BracketBuster mainly because it broke in the middle of the league schedule but it did guarantee you a home game against a school you probably would not have been able to schedule on your own.

Tripp = Legacy

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An examination of post season laurels paints a picture of a Grizzly football team that won twice as many games in 2013 as it did in a previous season.

With the football all-star teams there's a single selection of course that jumps right off the page with the naming of Jordan Tripp as only the second Grizzly in football history after Scott Gragg to be selected to play in the prestigious Senior Bowl.

And why not after a stupendous senior season which saw the ball hawker recover more fumbles than any player in Griz annals and complete a career as one of the leading tacklers of all time among the likes of Vince Huntzberger, Tyler Joyce, Kent Clausen and Mike Rankin.

But more than the stats are the kind of person Jordie is and the type of commitment he brings to not just football but his life.

When it was time to adorn the legacy of jersey No.37, opting out of his Dad's number, he did so with aplomb and brought even added lore to the fabled shirt, which again will be passed along in that tradition that was started by Craig Paulson in the early 80's.

But take it even deeper than that when Griz football was in turmoil last summer and someone was called upon to speak on their behalf about how they felt about UM Athletics and the importance that it held in the Missoula community.

It again was Tripp who headed that up as a rare third-generation Griz who wanted Griz Nation to understand just how important this Saturday venue that makes Washington Grizzly Stadium the state's sixth largest city six times a season is and what the moniker on the front of the jersey represents.

Tripp may or may not play at the next level - my bet is that he will - and will have a Guy Bingham kind of career - but what you have to know about him is how he will "REPRESENT" what makes Griz football what indeed it continues to be - not just wins or even continued excellence but one of legacy.

And that friends is why we embrace and will continue to recognize what Griz football represents.

All about Montana Western

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There will be a lot of familiar names on the roster of UM Western when they journey into Missoula Friday night.

The Western team that challenges Montana will be anything but a tune-up.

Not only are they 10 games into the season, although they could treat Friday's game as an exhibition, the Dogs return all five upper-class starters from a year ago that picked up their share of laurels.

In addition to being named to the All-Conference team last season, power forward Jake Owsley from Bozeman also was accorded second team All-American honors.

He is averaging 15 points and some seven rebounds while shooting 57 percent from the floor and leading Western in blocked shots.

Junior wing Chris Castro from Huntley Project was the league's defender of the year last season and leads them in steals and assists while corralling seven caroms an outing.

And junior guard Jordan Overstreet from Three Forks has connected on 18 treys while averaging a dozen points an outing.

He was second team all-league last year while fellow guard Maazin Butler, who was accorded honorable-mention status, is one of a few out-of-staters from near Tacoma, who shoots 45 percent treys and is second on the team in scoring at more than 14.

A high scoring quintet, Western averages just about 80 points an outing but gives up more than 77 while allowing 44 percent from the field.

They have no conscience when it comes to treys as they shoot about 24 a game connecting on an average of about eight.

Add to that mix of key returnees sophomore transfer Kurtis Parsons from CMR who is fourth in the scoring column at about 13 a game while dropping in almost a pair of threes an outing.

Counting the redshirts there are 16 Treasure State products on the roster including sophomore Connor Woodill from Hellgate, Caleb DeGroot from Loyola, and redshirt Kyle Ball from Victor.

If there's deficiencies they might be turnovers where they allow about as many as they get and rebounding where Western has been slightly outdistanced although they do control the offensive glass.

Tipoff at 7 Friday night and the Griz won't be back on the home floor until league starts in January.

Mario Dunn Jr.

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One of the more interesting things about watching young players when they first get to the college hardwood is how they react in a myriad of unique situations.

And while most of those players who arrive on the college scene were the star on their respective high school team and often bring along the attitude that comes with it, they all react differently to the rigors of collegiate competition.

You will have to admit we have been plenty spoiled during the last few seasons with the exploits of All-Conference Griz guard Will Cherry.

During his final two seasons he was just a joy to watch as he created havoc with his ball hawking skills, gambling for a steal, gallivanting up the floor on the break and often finishing against much taller odds.

I can't count the number of times it was the injection of his enthusiasm that spurred the Griz time and time again to 50 victories over his final two seasons.

And while I am not yet ready to adorn his heir apparent in true freshman Mario Dunn Jr., who also ironically is from Oakland, in about a three minute stretch Sunday against St Martin's showed signs, if not yet the athletic ability, that he possesses some of the same tools.

Maybe it's that Oakland water ... or maybe even in the case of California the lack thereof.

Now if you were to look at his stat line, it wasn't like Dunn stuffed the sheet although he did pick up a career-high three steals.

It was more his presence than his numbers, although after a career-high 11 against Idaho in his last outing, he added nine against the Saints.

But two-thirds of that output came in about a two-minute span when if he wasn't on the floor driving the opposition batty, he was swatting at the orb and forcing a dribble interruption.

As Tinks agreed in the post-game it was almost like a light went off and Dunn discovered he belonged at this level.

But of course keep in mind St. Martin's is an NAIA school unlike the competition Dunn will face with the approach of league play.

But mark my words, he is going to influence some outcomes early and often in his career.

Idaho recap

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Needless to say it's always nice to grab a victory in your house and it is even sweeter when it is over a former league foe who moved from the circuit looking for greener pastures.

Idaho is off to a rough start this season but I guess that would be predictable when you realize veteran Head Coach Don Verlin basically flushed out his group from a season ago and has a strong group of new guys who before the season is over are going to give some teams fits.

Montana jumped the Vandals early-on from three-point range connecting for five of their first 11 and Idaho's only first half lead came on their first trey of the contest to take a 3-zip advantage.

And even though the Grizzlies were again controlled on the offensive boards, Montana's zone caused the Vandals plenty of trouble and held them to about 37 percent shooting.

Stephen Madison was their guy early on but as Wayne Tinkle said in the post-game show his later offensive output was deeply affected by trying to chase Kareem Jamar around all night and he eventually fouled out of the contest finishing with just nine points.

Jamar was his usual self and on many occasions simply is unstoppable. His hang time even seems greater than a year ago and because of his athleticism it seems he plays bigger than 6-foot 5.

The league MVP had his usual double-double (16 points and 10 rebounds) and added a half-dozen assists against just a pair of turnovers.

My only concern is he plays so many minutes (38) because you just can't keep him off the floor because of his competiveness.

While five Grizzlies were in double figures my Star of the Game had to be Andy Martin who basically hadn't shown up on the stat sheet in the team's first five games.

Not only did he have six points and five caroms but his presence, along with "Hutch" on the back of the zone is a game changer.

There has to be a post threat at both ends of the floor for this Montana team to reach the heights of the last two seasons.

The Idaho Vandals

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It's time for hoop and no better time than to take on former Big Sky Conference foe the University of Idaho.

The Vandals are in Missoula on this Wednesday and they come to town winners of just four of nine games.

Stephen Madison and Conner Hill both are WAC pre-season honorees and Hill throws the ball in from three-point range like nobody's business having drained 154 treys in a two-year career to move up to third on the all-time list.

Idaho is facing three straight circuit opponents and four in a five game span as they get a taste of the league they join as a regular member next season in all sports but football.

Four of the Vandals nine games have been decided by five points or less with Idaho splitting the quartet of contests

With a trio of players in double figures Idaho averages some 74 points an outing but shooting just 43 percent from the field barely augmenting a 37 percent three-point percentage.

Idaho has decent size and is decent on the glass splitting the rebounding with the first nine opponents but they have lost three of their last four after beating North Texas.

Their only win over Davis was a four pointer just after Thanksgiving with losses to Columbia, Boise State and a one-pointer to arch rival Washington State.

The one thing the Vandals do is take care of the rock as they turn the ball over less than 11 times a game but that is all opponents give up as well so they are not exactly ball hawks.

These are perennial foes meeting for the 180th time since they were traditional foes even before the founding of the Big Sky in 1963.

Montana got Idaho in the old Memorial Gym in Moscow last year 66-63 shooting 54 percent in the second stanza to make up a four point halftime deficit.

As usual MVP Kareem Jamar led the way with a team leading 17 points and already is averaging nearly 20 an outing to go along with about six caroms.

The 2 teams meet again in Moscow Dec 28 just prior to the start of their respective leagues.

 

 

Football season wrap up, part 1

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With the annual individual awards the University of Montana football season has unfortunately drawn to what most of us believe is a bit of a pre-mature close.

Idaho visits Dahlberg Arena Wednesday with the Grizzlies looking to get off the snide especially since they face the Vandals twice in less than 3 weeks.

And it's not exactly an easy proposition since this is finals week and the Vandals certainly are anxious to show everybody they will be the cream of the crop when they come back into the Big Sky Conference as a regular member for everything (but football) next season.

But closing thoughts about a 10-win Grizzly football season sure are in order.

It just wasn't that long ago when Griz fans were darn happy to enjoy double-digit win seasons.

Even if you throw out last season's 5-6 campaign, 2003, 2005, and 2010 were all single-digit winning marks, two of which ended with first-round home playoff losses.

Yet no FCS team has won more games since 2000 than the Grizzlies who only are outdistanced by Georgia Southern in playoff victories.

Indeed we have become spoiled by our own success.

It was fitting indeed that junior quarterback Jordie Johnson and senior linebacker Brock Coyle shared the team's MVP award.

JJ is steadily moving up the career passing ladder and became just the 11th player ever to pass for more than 3,000 yards in a season (3,387), the sixth best mark ever.

Coyle, UM's leading tackler, is just one of those guys who knows how to get the ball out and also had 13.5 tackles for loss.

I guess you can't have all three linebackers be first teamers but he should have been there with J.P. Kanongata'a and Jordie Tripp.

Danny Kistler was tabbed the top offensive lineman for the second straight year while Zack Wagenmann also again claimed the defensive award.

Sophomore Ellis Henderson who became just the 12th receiver to eclipse 1,000 yards in a season won the outstanding back or receiver while he easily could have shared the honor with Jordan Canada.

I'll talk a bit more about those guys who will make their mark in the near future tomorrow.

Frustrating way to end the season

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There is little a broadcaster encounters that is more difficult than seeing a season come to an end no matter how fruitful or fulfilling it was.

I think it is even more difficult in basketball than it is in football because given the nature of post season there is a spot in March when you realize while there could be one more game - for instance when the Grizzlies advanced to the second round in Salt Lake City after upsetting Nevada you come to understand the season's completion is close at hand.

I have to admit in the last several minutes of the second quarter Saturday when Coastal Carolina dropped a quartet of scores on the Grizzlies, it gave me pause that the Big South champ might just be better than Montana on that given frozen day.

But half way through the 20-minute break I was back to my senses and remembered the number of times Montana has come back from behind to victory and out came those fabled words you often hear me utter in such circumstances "hey it's no hill for a climber, right."

And no hill it almost was as this never-say-die group cinched down the defense except for a single TD scamper and to the delight of a remarkable crowd that stuck to the very end came charging back to turn a rout into a one-possession game.

And had it not been for the mysterious checkmate call to examine whether a reception was indeed a catch I am a firm believer that the outcome would have favored Montana with the momentum charging to the east sidelines at Washington Grizzly Stadium.

Now I know you can't turn a game on a single call or non-call for that matter but there are a number of problems with the ensuing explanation.

Let's start by whose responsibility it is or was for that matter to tell the media, of which by the way I am one, that there was booth review, who was in charge of it, how it was to be utilized and how one official got a beeper buzz when the others didn't and why didn't the white hat take charge and say if we didn't all get word than the majority rules and the play stands.

Now I suppose I am going to be told there was some meeting where all of this was discussed but the information was not disseminated to me and I'd like an explanation.

No game should be influenced by such a situation and the length of time it took to make a decision is what is wrong with replay - It changes the pace of the game let alone in this a profound outcome.

And besides the catch was anything but a close call. Sure I am the home guy and it sounds like sour grapes but changing how a game is officiated when it comes to playoff time is pure poppycock.

Of course there were plenty of other opportunities and you certainly can argue that had the Grizzlies made the most of other chances, they would not have been in that situation.

Agreed but as often happens there was no prior flow of information and I'm betting there will be no one who takes the responsibility for the lack thereof. Or maybe they just figured home radio didn't need to know such things.

And on another matter since I am on my soap box, all those people who think they know who television rights are allocated for the playoffs and take it upon themselves to write Letter to the Editor or diatribes on social media, you might get your information correct.

The University of Montana, or of all things the Grizzly Scholarship Association, had nothing to do with how the game is distributed and to whom. The NCAA sold the rights for a hefty sum to ESPN which by the way at least decided to make it part of its Game Day schedule which at least made it somewhat available albeit for a fee.

Incidentally that information was out there since the playoffs began. And I suppose somebody is going to tell me so was the play review process.

It just is unfortunate in this day of instant information, people have forgotten how to communicate.

Coastal Carolina Personnel

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There will be plenty of room at Washington Grizzly Stadium Saturday, especially given the chilly conditions, but there is no doubt there will still be more in attendance at Washington-Grizzly Stadium than any other FCS venue in the country.

It is certainly true to be successful either the Chans or the Grizzlies are going to have to spring a successful rushing attack on their opponent on Saturday.

For Coastal Carolina, it's a case of a big back in Lorenzo Taliaferro (say Tau-la-Fair-oh) at 6 foot 2 and all of 230.

And quite a resume he's put together.

The Big South Offensive Player of the Year, he set the circuit's single-season rushing record, leads in rushing TDs and points scored and multi-rushing scoring games.

Mix in sophomore quarterback Alex Ross, who has enjoyed the benefit of the superb rush game, who connected for a quartet of scoring tosses in the first-round win over Bethune-Cookman after leading the Big South in passing efficiency, pass offense and completion percentage while contributing 22 passing TDs against just seven picks and you might say offensively they've got the whole package.

But then there is defense where mike-backer Quinn Backus, the league's defender of the year who ranks in the top 10 in tackles, tackles-for-loss, picks and defended passes and it's no wonder they carried their collective heads high when they got off the charter Thursday after the two-time-zone jaunt.

Add to the Backus stats, a blocked field goal 56 yards for a score against South Carolina State and establishing the school's lengthiest pick-six (73 yards) against Gardner Webb and he made 126 stops and well if words on paper meant a darn thing in determining an outcome, let's just do a phoner.

But there is just something different about this year's Grizzlies.

I suppose you can call it chemistry but I don't even think that's what it is. Oh sure they have plenty to prove after last season's disappointments and certainly have more than enough an incentive after the Jordan Johnson fiasco.

Win or lose and not unlike every other TEAM, these guys have made lifetime relationships the degree of which has yet to be determined. And we'll know the depth of the degree shortly.

Noise mixed in with some atmosphere

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I have to admit after losing more games than they won last season, it is some poetic justice - no pun intended - it's a pretty cool deal to be playing football again in December, something this broadcaster has become plenty accustomed to.

In the midst of a season-first four-game win streak listening to all the babble about whether or not Saturday's playoff game is going to be televised and what effect the cold or maybe even snow would have on a team traveling across a pair of time zones for a first-ever time has been to say the least enjoyable.

And just why not?

Nobody has been to the playoffs more than Montana and only Georgia Southern has won more games.

And while the nation's largest playoff crowd could be affected a taste by the balmy weather, those who do brave the elements will be boisterous football fans who realize full well what an effect they could have on Coastal Carolina's attempt to communicate.

It's not even so much pure volume as it is atmosphere and they'll be telling people in South Carolina about it - like Eastern Illinois' Tony Romo does - for years to come.

For the true athlete it brings out the best in you and that's why you want to play in games like this and the resolve that it brings to the forefront is almost beyond description.

For the meek-well you get the picture.

Both teams want to run the football but in different ways.

Coastal Carolina could be described as zone-read but Mick Delaney said it even more resembles triple-option while the Griz would rather just have the hogs lean on you till you break which more often than not occurs about five minutes into the penultimate quarter.

By the time you read this the Carolinians will be well on their way on a 2,600-plus mile journey to where the victor will head to the great-eight of FCS football.

They've split their last four games while the Grizzlies have yet to play their best football even while winning seven of their last eight.

It's time-It's playoff football-It-s the post season-and in a month it all will be decided on the field.

Now what can be better than that.

The Coastal Carolina Chanticleers

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While it is better than 2,500 miles to Conway, S.C. and Coastal Carolina never has played a game outside the Eastern Time Zone, don't think that is going to have much effect on Saturday's second-round FCS playoff game.

After a week to heal some bumps and bruises, Montana takes a four-game win streak and No. 4 listing against the Chanticleers (Shon Ti Cleers).

And it will be by no means an easy proposition.

Oh sure the weather will be cold, maybe some snow during the game, the nation's largest following will be in attendance, all of those things that could play some kind of if not a substantial role in the game's outcome.

Coastal Carolina, a relatively new football program (2003), has been to the post-season the last two years and in winning the Big South Conference their only FCS loss was a three-pointer on the road to Charleston Southern.

But in their finale, against FBS South Carolina, they were battered 70-10.

Now granted the Grizzlies have the playoff numbers, haven't lost a home playoff game since 2007 and sport a 27-6 home post-season record.

But numbers don't lie and this is an excellent Coastal Carolina team.

They total about 42 a game while giving up 29, total some 493 yards of offense - 10th best in FCS - and feature running back Lawrence Taliaferro, a Walter Payton Award candidate, who has rushed for 1,572 yards and 24 tallies.

Quarterback Alex Ross, who runs the zone-read, has thrown for 2,706 yards with just seven picks against 22 TDs.

Their receiver corps, led by Matt Hazel (6-foot 3) who has brought down 58 receptions for 881 yards, have a quintet of receivers with more than 20 catches.

Their offensive line averages better than three bills and they're extremely experienced.

Mike backer Quinn Backus is a Buchanan Award candidate who leads them with 126 tackles, 10 for loss, and also has picked off three passes.

What might be most impressive is third down conversions where Coastal Carolina gets there 53 percent of the time, as well as being successful eight of ten times on fourth down.

This is a Griz team hungry for success - We'll soon see just how hungry.

Rough start for the Big Sky Conference

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There was a lot of speculation as to why the Big Sky Conference had so many teams ranked in the polls but were sitting sixth among 13 FCS leagues.

With a week left in the regular campaign you remember the talk that if the Cats beat the Griz there probably had to be five league teams in the field of 24.

Well we know that didn't happen and with five losses and four straight the Cats had no chance to be included in the post season but the circuit still with four teams had more entities advancing to post season play than any other league.

Now part of that of course was how hot Southern Utah got at the end of the year and the Thunderbirds deservedly so along with Northern Arizona got first round bids with the Lumberjacks even getting a home game probably just on the basis that they defeated the Grizzlies who had advanced to the poll's Number four position.

But league representation quickly was cut in half with both Southern Utah and NAU going down in flames leaving just the two seeded teams, league champ Eastern Washington and Montana to carry the torch.

Unfortunately head coach Jerome Souers was not on the sidelines after being hospitalized and replaced by former Grizzly Andy Thompson, the team's defensive coordinator, which was particularly unfortunate since the Jacks had not been to the post season since 2003 and Jerome certainly was deserving of his spot pacing the sidelines.

Running back Zach Bauman, who again eclipsed the century mark, finished his career third on the league's career rushing list but the Lumberjacks only converted one of 13 third down opportunities in falling 26-7.

The Thunderbirds ran into a buzz saw in Texas which should surprise no one since Sam Houston State has owned the Big Sky winning the last half dozen playoff games over the league's opponents.

Southern Utah jumped to a 10-point lead only to see the Bearkats run off 30 straight to win easily going away 51-20.

This weekend will be no aberration for Montana since the Grizzlies have had their back against the wall since falling to Eastern Washington. It should be double digit temps by kickoff.

Update on Montana basketball

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 Off to a rough start at the get-go the Grizzlies came bouncing back in Oahu Friday but couldn't sustain the effort and fell to the Rainbows 72-61.

Trailing by just a half dozen at the intermission Montana pulled within one 36-35 before Hawaii scored nine unanswered to pull to a double-digit advantage that they never relinquished.

League MVP Kareem Jamar who has led Montana in scoring in every outing this season was scoreless in the first half but finished with 16 points but only was joined in double figures by Keron DeShields with 11.

Struggling at the line in the season's first four games, Montana improved to 16 of 19 from the charity stripe but connected on just five of 29 from three-point range as they struggled to get back into the game against Hawaii which advanced their season mark to 5 and 2.

Montana got more effective post play as Eric Hutchison connected for a couple of field goals to augment a four-for-four free throw performance for eight points and tied Jamar in rebounding with six.

The Grizzlies matched Hawaii on the offensive glass with 10 and were outrebounded by just six but Montana assisted on just a half dozen of their 20 made field goals.

True freshman Mario Dunn played substantial time at the point (15 minutes) and another true frosh Brandon Gfeller continues to see considerable court time and added nine points on three treys in 17 minutes of action.

But Montana connected on just 20 of 56 field goal attempts (35.7 percent) while the Bows shot some 62 percent after the break and 57 percent for the game.

The Grizzlies don't play again until Dec 11 in Missoula when they host the University of Idaho which rejoins the Big Sky Conference in hoop next season.

Meanwhile the Chanticleers (say Shon-ti-cleers) of Coastal Carolina make the trip across a couple of time zones to face Montana in the FCS second round Saturday at Noon.

And In case you missed it former Montana player and coach Brent Pease and the offensive line coach were fired at Florida on Sunday. His freshman quarterback is former Detroit Lions and Grizzly quarterback Marty Morninweg's son.

Montana vs. Hawaii game preview

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It's back to the hardwood tonight as the Grizzlies venture to the Island of Oahu for a rematch with the University of Hawaii.

Montana looks to get back to the winning way with a tough matchup with the Rainbows.

This is a payback game for the Hawaii visit to Missoula two years ago as part of BracketBuster then oddly enough it's almost two weeks before the next game at home against the University of Idaho on Dec. 11.

Losers of three of their first four games but the last against San Francisco and Washington by just five points, the Grizzlies visit the Islands for the first time since they played in the Big Island Classic in 1997.

The last time the two teams met was in Missoula in 2012 resulting in a 94-79 Griz victory as Kareem Jamar enjoyed the only triple-double of his career.

The Rainbows beat New Orleans Wednesday 91-58 to advance their season mark to 4-2. The Bow losses have come to Missouri and New Mexico State.

Hawaii features a three-guard look with no true post and while they go 6-foot 8 at the two forward spots, they are undersized at guard.

Christian Standhardinger leads Hawaii in scoring at about 18 an outing but they feature a quartet of players in double figures.

Sophomore forward Jesse Fotu averages just short of 15 to compliment nine caroms an outing followed closely by 6-foot 2 guard Garrett Nevels who shoots well over 50 percent from three-point range while averaging 14.6 points per game.

Five-foot 11 junior guard Keith Shamburger adds a bit more than 10 points an outing for fourth-year coach Gib Arnold.

Hawaii is 4-1 at home and averaging better than 100 points the last two games with a 42-point margin of victory.

The Bows are shooting 48 percent from the field and hammering opponents by double digits off the glass, thus far a Grizzly weak point.

And Hawaii is getting to the line some 20 times a game where they are shooting in the mid-70 percentile.

They next face Northern Arizona in another BracketBuster payback game before a long respite between home contests (Dec. 23).

Playoff news and notes

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And a Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours and especially to those who can't make it home for the holiday.

Grizzly football gets a couple of days off after a couple of days of practice on what really is a bye week before the second round of the FCS playoffs.

A record quartet of Big Sky Conference teams are among the first-ever field of 24 and of course league champ Eastern Washington and No. 4 Montana are seeded and thus take a bye into the second round where the field is cut to the sweet 16.

While Northern Arizona will host an 8-4 South Dakota State team, Southern Utah has the unenviable task of traveling to Huntsville to challenge Sam Houston State.

Eastern Washington will host the winner of that game which is ironic since the Eagles and the Lumberjacks didn't face each other this season.

While the Big Sky Conference, which this season was ranked sixth of 13 FCS leagues, has sent more than a single team to the post season for the last 15 years and 28 of 30 years, this marks the first time four teams have advanced.

Even with the NCAA vacation of the 2011 appearance, Montana returns to the playoffs for the 22nd time in 30 years and its string of 17 straight appearances (1993-2009) is the FCS standard.

With a pair of titles and five runner-ups, the Grizzlies sport a 30-18 playoff record which is 20 more wins than any other Big Sky Conference entity.

In fact as a whole the circuit has won 75 while losing 63 in the post season with six titles and seven second-place finishes.

Georgia Southern, which is moving to FBS and just defeated Florida last week leads with 45 playoff victories, followed by Montana with 32 and Youngstown State with 25.

Montana's 22 playoff appearances, the most ever, is two more than Eastern Kentucky and Appalachian State and a single time more than Georgia Southern.

Northern Arizona is making its first playoff appearance since 2003 while EWU makes its 10th appearance and in Cheney where the Eagles are 5-1 in the playoffs on the fabled red turf. They sport an eight game winning streak.

A look at the All-Conference selections

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There were few Montana players who did not receive some form of recognition as the Big Sky All-Conference teams were named.

As Griz hoop was making a strong showing in Seattle only to fall to the Huskies Tuesday night even with a career showing by Jordan Gregory, Montana dominated the all-league football selections.

A trio of players including junior Zack Wagenmann joined three other players as two-time first team selections and the remainder of the three teams selected on both sides of the ball included a myriad of Grizzlies.

Joining the record-setting Wagenmann was tackle Danny Kistler and Jordie Tripp, who both will be all over NFL teams boards when the time comes in the spring.

Wags was fifth on the defensive unit in total tackles with 54, but 15.5 were for loss to go along with a team-leading five sacks.

Add to that six hurries, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery and you can see why his upcoming senior season, let along the playoff run, indeed looks promising.

Tripp trailed only mike backer Brock Coyle in tackles with 89 stops, five for loss and 1.5 sacks but he intercepted three balls and set a team standard with three fumble recoveries and now has 10 in his illustrious career.

And Kistler was a stalwart on an offensive line that allowed but 17 sacks in 12 games. J.P. Kanongata'a also was a first-team selection.

NAU's Zach Bauman and Eastern Washington cornerback T.J. Lee both were selected to the first unit for the third consecutive time, while to no one's surprise the Eagles Cooper Kupp was accorded Freshman of the Year honors and probably will also claim the National Award , while sophomore QB Vernon Adams was the offensive choice.

Montana State end Brad Daly and tackle Sullivan Grosz shared the defensive Player of the Year Award while running back Gabe Manzanarez was named the league's top newcomer.

Sophomore Ellis Henderson was a second team choice both as a wide out and a return specialist where the Grizzlies dominated with William Poehls, Kjelby Oiland, Alex Bienemann, Coyle, Chief Goodwin and Matt Hermanson all received recognition.

For Griz hoop it's on to Oahu for