LOS ANGELES – Will Cherry called it the longest two minutes of his young life.
Brian Qvale was confident from the opening tip.
Wayne Tinkle didn’t feel comfortable until the final horn sounded.
When it did, the Montana men’s basketball team owned a 66-57 stunner over perennial Pac-10 power UCLA in a nonconference men’s basketball game in front of 5,391 silent fans at fabled Pauley Pavilion.
Montana’s first win over UCLA in five tries pushed the Grizzlies’ record to 4-3, while UCLA, coming off a one-point loss at No. 4 Kansas, fell to 3-4.
Cherry led the way by scoring 13 of his game-high 18 points in the second half, when the Griz shot 61 percent (14 for 23) from the floor. Qvale added 13 points and 10 rebounds.
The Griz were in control for much of the game, leading by seven several times in the first half before settling for a 32-28 lead at the break. They pushed the lead to eight early in the second half before a 16-4 run broke the game open.
“We came down here to handle business,” said Cherry, the sophomore point guard who was 7 for 11 from the field. “Nobody was starstruck because we were playing in Pauley Pavilion. Yesterday in practice, coach told us the Bruins aren’t unbeatable, they’re beatable like anyone else in the country.”
The Griz did it by holding UCLA to 31 percent shooting with an active zone defense. Malcolm Lee led the Bruins with 13 points and Tyler Honeycutt added 11, seven below his team-leading average.
“That was our key heading into the game,” Tinkle said of the zone that also forced 16 UCLA turnovers. “We played it more than we thought we were going to have to, but boy, our guys were dialed in. (UCLA) missed some shots they’re probably going to make down the road. By setting the tone early, we showed that we were going to be here all night long. It created some doubt.”
Josh Smith, a 6-foot-10, 300-plus-pound freshman center, brought UCLA within 38-33 when he scored inside with 15:16 to play. That was as close as the Bruins got.
Cherry had six points in the game-changing 16-4 burst, half on a 3-pointer that sent him down the floor pounding his chest. But it was an equal-opportunity run. Art Steward had four points, Qvale scored on a nice spin move to the baseline for a layup, Jordan Wood drove to the rim for a deuce and Mathias Ward finished it off with a 17-foot jumper as the shot clock expired. When it was done, the Griz owned a 54-37 lead with 8:15 to play and Bruins fans headed to the exits.
“We have a lot of young, confident players, I’ll put it that way,” Tinkle said. “Having a youthful team, they’re going to make some mistakes because of inexperience, but they’re not going to be afraid.”
The Griz held Reeves Nelson and Brendan Lane, the Bruins’ starting low-post players, to just nine points.
“Nelson missed some shots inside and (Smith) seemed rushed because their size inside bothered us,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said. “Montana is a strong team, so you have to give them credit, but we missed a lot of opportunities, especially in the second half.”
Qvale said that’s where the Grizzlies’ defensive effort started, on the interior.
“We came out and played defense in the post and on the perimeter,” Qvale said. “We just need to go out and play our defense from the start and it leads to good offense.
“I felt confident as long as we kept attacking the basket because we were playing solid defense.”
Some suspect free-throw shooting down the stretch – the Griz were 1 of 10 in the second half of a loss to Portland last Friday – might have let the Bruins get back into the game if not for the size of the lead. The Griz missed the front end of three straight one-and-one chances, but UCLA still couldn’t get anything going.
That’s when Cherry said he could see defeat in the eyes of the Bruins.
“Stop after stop, layup after layup, foul after foul; it looked like they were ready to give up,” Cherry said. “There was kind of some bickering. When we were making shots, we could see it in their faces that they were ready to break. That’s what told us to keep our feet on their necks.
That’s when it was just a matter of watching for the clock to hit zero.
“Those were still some of the longest two minutes of my life,” Cherry said. “It’s a great boost to the team. We know we can go out there and play with darn near any team in the country.”
Tinkle was too wrapped up in the game to see the defeat on the faces of the Bruins.
“That clock couldn’t tick any slower in my mind,” he said. “We know what a dangerous club they are. … As a coach you never count it until that horn goes off and you have the lead.”
Tinkle harkened back to the Grizzlies’ near miss against John Wooden’s Bruins in the 1975 NCAA tournament, a game UCLA won despite a heroic effort of 32 points by Montana’s Eric Hays. Those Bruins won Wooden’s final national championship.
“We told the team before we took the court about the time these two teams met in the NCAA tournament and what gave Montana an opportunity to win that game,” Tinkle said. “It was all about toughness and discipline. We challenged our guys to get a piece of our own history.”
Sports editor Bob Meseroll can be reached at 523-5265 or at email@example.com.