MISSOULA — Timmy Falls threw up his arms in celebration before the ball even went in the basket.
Playing with a level of confidence he hasn’t yet displayed this season, the Montana Grizzlies' freshman had just dished a one-handed, no-look pass to fellow freshman Karl Nicholas, who finished with a reverse layup. He got a high five from head coach Travis DeCuire as he ran down the court.
Falls hit a 3-pointer to cap the previous possession and followed up the assist by drawing a charge at the other end of the court, showing the three main aspects of his play — 3-point shooting, precision passing and defense — in less than 90 seconds during the second half of Tuesday’s 86-68 win over UC Irvine.
His breakout performance helped show the potential the Griz have when they’re able to rely on their bench. They want to play with an eight-player rotation, and of the three regulars off the bench, Falls was the lone player who had yet to break through as the team nears conference play next week.
“Coach (Travis DeCuire) just talked to me throughout this past week and weekend and was telling me I need to be the player they recruited and I need to have more confidence on the court and shoot my shots whenever I’m open,” Falls said. “I took that to heart.”
In front of the biggest crowd of the season at Dahlberg Arena, he scored a career-high 14 points after entering the game with 12 total points through his first nine games. Bench mates Sayeed Pridgett and Karl Nicholas added eight points each for 30 total bench points.
A 6-foot-2 freshman from Dublin High School in California, Falls has been getting used to coming off the bench after a high school career spent starting. With guards like Ahmaad Rorie and Mike Oguine, it was unlikely he’d come in and immediately start at Montana, but he still chose the Griz over Weber State and San Jose State.
“At first it was hard for me because I never really expected (coming off the bench) since I’ve been starting four years at Dublin,” Falls said. “I just try to make the most of my time, stay confident when I go out there and try to help my team.”
His playing time per game has fluctuated, but he earned a career-high 22 minutes off the bench Tuesday. It was his most minutes since playing 20 in the season opener against Whitworth.
“It’s a sign of what he’s capable of,” DeCuire said. “Our schedule, we’ve played some really tough teams, so hopefully in conference he’ll have a chance to go out and give us those same minutes he gave us tonight.”
He’s been working on adapting to the pace of play at the college level, and his understanding of the defensive principles has allowed him to play early. As he’s adjusting to the speed of the game, he can guard the speedier players and allow Rorie or Oguine to get more rest.
“Timmy is as good as those guys at doing that when he’s on the floor and he’s tuned in,” DeCuire said. “That’s huge for us. If we’re going to apply this type of pressure for long periods of time, he has to play minutes for us.”
He’s also been getting up more shots in practices than he usually takes, and that led to a 4-of-4 shooting performance on 3-pointers Tuesday. He entered the game 1 of 10 on 3-pointers and had missed his first eight before he made one in Sunday’s win over UC Riverside.
When he’s on his game, like he was Tuesday, it adds another person who can create plays, which takes pressure off of Rorie and Oguine. And when he’s hitting the outside shot, opposing teams will have to respect him and can’t help on a post player, freeing up more space for the big men to operate.
“I feel he’s clicking at the right time,” Oguine said. “As we start getting into conference, we’re going to need him to be on his game every night.”