MISSOULA — Before Monday’s game against Pitt, Montana men’s basketball head coach Travis DeCuire wrote “Compete with physical/mental toughness” on a whiteboard in the Grizzlies’ locker room.
That toughness was needed more than ever when the Griz were called for a 10-second violation, gave up a game-tying basket and missed a potential game-winning shot in the final minute of regulation.
As it appeared a signature win was once again slipping away, they stayed on message and pulled off an 83-78 upset win in overtime to end a streak of 14 losses to Power 5 teams.
“Our guys grew up tonight,” DeCuire said in the postgame news conference.
The Griz will continue play in the Legends Classic against Penn State of the Big Ten at 5 p.m. Monday in University Park, Pennsylvania.
The Pitt victory is a signature win for DeCuire and the Montana program after several close, competitive losses in the fourth-year head coach’s first three seasons. There’s been missed opportunities against USC, Oregon, Gonzaga, Cal and NC State to name a few.
Even with the big-time win, DeCuire wasn’t ready to make any sweeping statements about his program just two games into the season. He stopped short of saying the Griz have arrived and instead called the win a “partial arrival.”
“Hopefully what it’s a sign of is stability for our program,” he said.
DeCuire’s intent with scheduling Power 5 opponents is to help the team be better prepared for conference play. That’s important because it’d be seemingly impossible for a mid-major team from the Big Sky to reach the NCAA tournament without winning its conference tournament.
Beating a high-major team by successfully closing out a game on the road could lead to more confidence later in the season.
“There’s a good feeling there,” DeCuire said of beating Pitt, “but at the same time, that’s not our goal. We want to win these games. … The biggest thing for us is to win these games in November so we can feel like we can win this game in March.”
The Griz got the win without strong play from junior transfer forward Jamar Akoh, true freshman forward Karl Nicholas and true freshman guard Timmy Falls, all of whom are expected to play big roles for the Griz.
Akoh totaled two rebounds and four points on 2-of-10 shooting in two games. He played 14 minutes against Whitworth before the Griz went to a smaller lineup. Against Pitt, he picked up four fouls and was on the court for just 14 minutes again.
Nicholas played just eight minutes in each of the first two games, picking up four fouls in both games. He’s totaled eight points — on 4-of-5 shooting — and three rebounds.
Falls had one rebound and two points on 1-of-5 shooting in 20 minutes against Whitworth. He saw just four minutes of playing time against Pitt, missing the only shot he took.
“If we can win with those three not giving us big minutes and not performing, then when they get going, it could be special,” DeCuire told KGVO 98.3 FM after the game.
Penn State is off to a 2-0 start with an 86-75 win over Campbell of the Big South Conference and an 81-57 win over Fairleigh Dickinson of the Northeast Conference.
Sophomore guard Tony Carr leads the Nittany Lions with 26.5 points and seven assists, and is second with 6.5 rebounds. Junior guard Josh Reaves paces the team with 8.5 rebounds and 3.5 steals, and is second with 16 points game.
Redshirt sophomore forward Mike Watkins had 15 points, five rebounds and three blocks in the one game he played. Sophomore forward Lamar Stevens is averaging 10 points and 6.5 rebounds.
Penn State is coming off a 15-18 season that included a freshman class which made 90 starts. The Nittany Lions returned all five starters.
“They were Pitt last year where they were young and they had these freshmen that were playing a lot of minutes,” DeCuire said. “… Now they’ve kind of arrived a little bit and they’re putting a ton of points on the board. You have some guys that can play. It’s going to be a tough one for us.”