MISSOULA — Under fourth-year head coach Travis DeCuire, Montana has beaten every Big Sky Conference team on the road — except one: Sacramento State.
The Griz have gone into The Nest — the 1,012-seat home of the Hornets — three times and left without a win. Their most recent loss was a stinging 92-83 defeat that saw them get swept on the Portland State-Sacramento State road trip for the first time under DeCuire.
“I think all of us who played last year have a sour taste in our mouths,” senior Fabijan Krslovic said. “They beat us twice (last year). We don’t want that to happen ever. We don’t want to get swept by any teams. We’ll go in there ready to give them everything and hopefully we’ll come away with a win.”
Montana (11-5, 4-0) will try to get that elusive win when it tips off against Sacramento State 8 p.m. Thursday before it takes on Sacramento State 2 p.m. Saturday.
While the Hornets are 4-12 overall and 1-2 in Big Sky play, they’ve gone 4-1 in home games. They beat Cal State Northridge, a team Montana also defeated, and earned an 80-75 conference-opening victory over Portland State, the hottest Big Sky team in non-league play.
Although the attendance can’t get too far over 1,000 in the high school-looking gym, the atmosphere has been tough for the Griz.
“They pack it out for our game,” guard Ahmaad Rorie said. “It’s real small, real hostile. It gets very loud.”
Multiple players said the Griz, in the past, have overlooked the Hornets, who’ve struggled the last two years. They’ve lost by one point, four points — after leading by 14 at the half — and nine points in their three tips to Sacramento.
Looking past them could be easy to do again with a quick turnaround Saturday against Portland State and the Vikings’ unique defensive style of fullcourt press and traps.
“When we’ve gone to Sac State, it’s like a win is a given,” guard Mike Oguine said. “Every time we’ve done that, we’ve gotten exposed. No matter how many people are there or how big the gym is, we’re going to go out and compete like it’s a championship.”
The Griz are eyeing their first 5-0 start in conference since 2015-16, when they won six straight, and a distinct challenge awaits. The Hornets try to take away one or two of the opposing team’s strengths and will stick with it for 40 minutes, so making in-game adjustments will be key.
“In the past, they’ve played man to man, gone to some zone,” DeCuire said. “They’re known to face guard a guy or two and not let them touch the ball and try to play four on four. They trap the first pass, so you can’t run an offense. They’re game by game.”
Offensively, the Hornets will feed the ball to 6-foot-7 Justin Strings. The versatile forward with the skillset of a guard can create his own shot, score from isolation situations at the elbow or on the wing, and post up down low.
He’s one of three Big Sky players to rank in the top 10 for points (21.7) and rebounds (8.3) during league play. In five games against Montana, he’s averaged 16.4 points and most recently scored 29 points in a two-point Griz loss in Missoula last year.
“He’s a bit of a matchup nightmare,” Krslovic said. “If you put a quicker perimeter guy on him, he’ll take him down inside. Bigger guys who maybe have enough size kind of struggle to keep up with his speed outside.”
The player who most resembles Strings who the Griz have faced this season was Penn State’s Lamar Stevens, DeCuire said. The 6-8 forward tallied 25 points, seven rebounds, two assists, two blocks and two steals in the Grizzlies’ 70-57 loss.
The Hornets have been without senior guard and captain Marcus Graves because of a back injury requiring surgery in October. Their offense has struggled and is averaging 65.9 points per game — 11th in the Big Sky — with a scoring margin of negative-6.5 points.
Sophomore forward Joshua Patton is adding 9.5 points on 54.6 percent shooting, sixth in the conference, and ranks first with 30 blocks on the season.
Sophomore guard Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa sets up others and has totaled 55 assists, seventh most in the conference.
Off the bench, junior guard Jordan Tolbert has made 50 percent (29 of 58) of his 3-point attempts and is adding 10.8 points.
“We’ll throws the kitchen sink on (Strings) and rotate bodies,” DeCuire said. “But one guy shouldn’t be able to beat you. I think it’s going to take more than 20 or 30 points to beat us. We have to do a good job defending everyone.”