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SAN JOSE, Calif. - Montana men's basketball coach Wayne Tinkle wrote two words on the chalkboard last week before his Griz played in the Big Sky Conference tournament semifinals: Don't settle.

He asked the team what it meant.

"Don't settle for bad shots, don't settle for this," Tinkle said Wednesday. "It took our walk-on football player (Justin Roper) to say, ‘Don't settle for being in the semifinals,' and we used that again when we got to the championship."

Tinkle said he'll reprise the motto Thursday when the 14th-seeded Griz (22-9) take on third-seeded New Mexico (29-4) in the first round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament at HP Pavilion. The game will begin at approximately 7:50 p.m. MDT, 30 minutes after the conclusion of the game between sixth-seeded Marquette and 11th-seeded Washington and will be televised on CBS.

The winners of those two games will meet Saturday with a berth in the Sweet 16 on the line.

The Griz know they'll face an uphill climb to pull off their second upset in their last two trips to the NCAA tournament.

New Mexico is ranked eighth in the country and is 6-0 against other ranked teams, the only team in the nation with an unblemished mark.

The Lobos won 15 straight games before being upset in the Mountain West Conference tournament last week by San Diego State.

And their star player, Darington Hobson, might be the best player on a top 10 team you've never heard of. The transfer from the College of Eastern Utah leads the Lobos in scoring (16.2), rebounding (9.2) and assists (4.6).

"He's a matchup nightmare," Tinkle said of the 6-foot-7 wing. "He can rebound the ball and push it 94 feet, so you try to guard him with a big guy and he can pose a lot of challenges. He's a great passer, one of the better passers we've seen on film this year.

"Obviously, he can shoot the ball, get to the rim and finish, and post up. He's just their emotional leader. We're going to face some pretty big obstacles in trying to limit his impact."

The Lobos feel similarly about Griz star Anthony Johnson, whose 42-point performance in the league title game last week was a hot topic at the team's news conference on Wednesday.

"He's obviously a very talented individual, someone who can take over a basketball game," New Mexico coach Steve Alford said. "Anytime you get in a tournament as such, good guard play is always a key and I think it has been over the years in this tournament, and Montana has that. In Johnson alone, they have that. They have someone who can take over a game when things aren't going well."

But that's a strength of the Lobos as well, who start point guard Dairese Gary (12.7 ppg) and Phillip McDonald (10.7 ppg) alongside Hobson in the backcourt.

"We just had our meeting and we thought we'd put up detour signs around town and maybe he won't get to the gym tomorrow," Alford said of Johnson. "That might be the only way to contain somebody like him. We'll run different people at him, different bodies at him. We're a pretty big, physical team, and we have some guys I think are pretty good defenders.

"That's why you play the game. Sometimes good defense beats good offense and sometimes it doesn't. It starts with Johnson, but it doesn't end there. They have some good complementary players who really help their team in a lot of different ways."

And the Griz plan to use them early and often. In 6-11 Brian Qvale and 7-foot Derek Selvig, the Griz might have a size advantage over New Mexico's frontcourt of 6-6 Roman Martinez and 6-8 AJ Hardeman.

"We definitely feel like we need to get the ball inside," Tinkle said. "I think when they take a look at our film and our stats, they're going to try to do some things to limit what Anthony does. So I think our game plan has to be let's get some other guys going."

The Griz could also use a boost from senior Ryan Staudacher, a 46-percent shooter from 3-point range, and freshman Will Cherry, who has matured into a solid and sometimes spectacular point guard.

"We're kind of used to the drill by now," Johnson said. "They're going to try to take me away and that's been the game plan all year, take me away and force other guys to step up. But I think we're here for a reason and now more than ever we're going to play two great halves of basketball and you're going to see a Griz team that's serious when we take the court. ...

"Everybody's going to play well. That's what's needed in order for us to make history."

NOTES: The Griz knocked off Nevada in 2006 in their last NCAA appearance. The Griz were a 12 seed and the Wolfpack was seeded fifth. ... The Lobos are making their 12th appearance in the NCAA tournament and have a 6-12 record. Seven of those trips came in the 1990s under coach Dave Bliss. ... This is Montana's fourth appearance in the last nine years under three different coaches (Don Holst, Larry Krystkowiak and Tinkle). ... In Montana's nine losses this season, only one was by double digits (59-48 to Northern Colorado). ... Johnson's 42-point game boosted his scoring average from 18.8 to 19.6. ... Both teams are unbeaten when scoring 70 or more points.

Sports editor Bob Meseroll can be reached at 523-5265 or at sportsdesk@missoulian.com.

 

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