MISSOULA — The Montana men’s basketball team struggled on defense for much of the first half — and it wasn't playing Pitt or Penn State, teams the Griz kept pace with two weeks ago.
The Griz were hosting Carroll College, an NAIA school from Helena, and the Saints took it to the Griz the first 20 minutes. Montana led for an entire 25 seconds more than Carroll in the first half and squeaked out a 46-42 halftime lead because the Saints' best player was relegated to the bench with foul trouble.
“It was pretty embarrassing,” junior guard Mike Oguine said. “It came down to playing hard, playing smart and playing together. We didn’t do any of those three things in the first half.”
The second half was quite a different picture as the Griz (4-2) put the clamps on defensively to key an 86-75 victory on Sunday at Dahlberg Arena.
The Griz outscored the Saints 40-33 in the second half, holding them to 37.5 percent on 9-of-24 shooting. The Saints shot a scorching 76.2 percent with five misses on 21 field-goal attempts in the first half as the Griz gave them space to operate on offense and were reacting to plays instead of anticipating.
Carroll came in averaging 91.2 points on 59.7 percent shooting and remained in the game during the second half with opportune 3-pointers, finishing 8 of 12.
“The intensity was the biggest thing,” Griz head coach Travis DeCuire said of the defensive change in the second half. “The second thing was attention to detail, moving to all the right places.”
Added Oguine: “It came down to taking pride in getting stops."
The Grizzlies’ 86 points were a season high, topping their 83 against Pitt in overtime. They used their size and quickness to the basket for a 50-22 advantage in points in the paint.
They shot a season-high 55.9 percent (33 of 59) against a Carroll team that was holding teams to 38.8 percent shooting and 63.7 points. They scored 24 points off of 20 turnovers they forced; Carroll had 18 points off of 16 turnovers.
Montana junior Jamar Akoh recorded his first double-double of the season with a career-high 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting to go with 10 rebounds in 24 minutes. The Griz out-rebounded Carroll 33-22, including a 14-3 edge on the offensive glass and 18 second-chance points compared to just two for Carroll.
“I decided to come with a different mentality, just dominate,” Akoh said. “Lately, I haven’t been playing really hard, and I had to get it going."
Montana finished with five scorers in double figures for the first time this season. Ahmaad Rorie led the way with 20 points. Oguine chipped in 15, and Bobby Moorehead and Sayeed Pridgett added 12 each.
The Griz struggled to slow down Ryan Imhoff, Carroll’s dynamic 6-foot-6 senior guard. He finished with 25 points on 8-of-15 shooting in 27 minutes. Montana’s best defense against him was sending him to the bench with foul trouble.
“I don’t know if we’ve seen a player as quick and as big and skilled as he is,” Akoh said. “It’s something you don’t see all the time.”
Imhoff helped put the Griz in an early 14-8 hole, and he scored 14 points in 12 minutes as the Griz trailed 24-22. He picked up his third overall foul — including two fouls in 15 seconds — and went to the bench for the final 8:24 of the half with the Griz trailing 24-22.
Montana took a 26-24 lead when Akoh scored a layup and Rorie made two free throws that came from a technical foul on Carroll coach Carson Cunningham. The Griz built their first-half lead as big as six points, 36-30, and led 46-42 at the half while shooting 61.3 percent.
In the second half, Montana built a 52-44 lead on an Oguine corner 3-pointer and took its first double-digit lead at 58-48. The Griz pushed that to 62-50 before Alejandro Santos Piqueras made back-to-back 3-pointers with 10:37 to play.
Akoh later pushed the lead to 70-59 with a layup, and he converted an and-1 that put Montana ahead 77-66 with 3:30 to play.
“I don’t think we’ve put 40 minutes together,” DeCuire said. “I don’t know that we’ve put 30 minutes together yet.”
Notes: The Griz went with the same starting five of Oguine, Rorie, Moorehead, Akoh and Fabijan Krslovic for the sixth time. DeCuire had said after the last game that starting jobs were up for grabs. … Krslovic added six points, and Timmy Falls added four. … Carroll’s Matt Wyman, a Great Falls grad, scored 12 points. Oliver Carr, a Bozeman grad, scored three points. Dane Warp, a Havre grad averaging 11.3 points, didn’t play.