The Montana men's basketball team survived a late comeback by Southern Utah in a 60-58 win Thursday, boosting the Grizzlies to 3-0 in Big Sky Conference play.
On the road in Cedar City, Utah, the Grizzlies led by six with 32 seconds left after a pair of Sayeed Pridgett layups. But a quick 4-0 run by the Thunderbirds closed the gap to two.
Southern Utah’s Harrison Butler hit two free throws and then Kendal Manuel was called for a travel on Montana’s next possession.
Manuel also missed the front end of two one-and-one’s in the final minute. But a clutch steal from Timmy Falls in the Southern Utah offensive possession between those foul shots made sure the Thunderbirds never had a clean look to win or tie the game.
A half-court shot from Cameron Oluyitan just missed for Southern Utah at the buzzer.
“It’s three gritty wins in a row. Our defense is leading the way right now, holding them to 39 percent, I told them we were going to have to keep them in the 50’s to win this game,” Montana head coach Travis DeCuire said to KGVO radio following the game. “We did a good job tonight doing that.”
It was the second game in a row that came down to a missed 3-point shot by Montana’s opponent, as the Grizzlies escaped Sacramento State by two points on Monday.
Manuel might have struggled at the line over the final half minute of play, but it was his clutch 3-point shots that helped the Grizzlies build a lead earlier in the second half. The senior finished with 17 points and was a perfect 3 of 3 from behind the arc during the final 20 minutes of regulation.
Montana never trailed and was ahead by five at halftime, a lead it increased to double digits with a quick 5-0 run out of halftime.
Jared Samuelson was key for the Grizzlies, scoring a game-high 21 points, which also stands as a career-best mark for the senior in a Montana uniform. Samuelson is the first player other than Pridgett or Manuel to lead Montana in scoring this season.
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In one crucial stretch, he hit three shots in a four-minute span late in the second half to help answer a Thunderbird burst. Samuelson was an uber-efficient 9 of 14 from the floor, including hitting three of four 3-point shots.
“He’s got his legs under him and that was the biggest thing and why we brought him along slow off the surgery,” DeCuire said. “We wanted him to be fresh for conference if anything, out of conference really didn’t mean that much in regards to what our goals are … once he got some pop, he got more effectively offensively for us and that’s what he does, he puts it in the basket.”
Southern Utah (8-5, 1-1 Big Sky) lost for the first at home this year. It was win No. 15 in a row in the series for the Grizzlies, who now lead the Thunderbirds 18-5 all-time.
Pridgett had 17 points, eight rebounds, three assists and a block and a steal for Montana in 31 minutes, despite having early foul trouble.
Oluyitan, who entered the contest averaging 13.2 points per game, was held to just six points on 3 of 12 shooting. Southern Utah was clearly uncomfortable against Montana’s swarming defense and the Thunderbirds shot just 20 of 51 from the field and 3 of 13 from behind the arc.
The Grizzlies also won the turnover battle 15-9, scoring 16 points off Thunderbird miscues.
Montana continues its two-game road trip with a Saturday game at Northern Colorado. Tip is set for 7 p.m.
“I thought we all handled the last three minutes pretty well,” DeCuire said. “I would have liked to have called a timeout on the turnover on the travel, I blew that one, I thought Kendal (Manuel) was going to pass it out, but he was having a hard time getting out of that trap.
“But I thought we handled the situation well despite the fact that we missed shots and turned it over.”