SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Sitting on a folding table in the Adams Center's West Auxiliary Gym on Wednesday, Travis DeCuire asked when his team would get out to a fast start.
Though its conference record was tied for the best its been in three years, Montana has had to fight through slow starts in a handful of those wins. Most recently a stumble out of the gates against Idaho led to their only loss and the Griz had to fight through second-half deficits against North Dakota and Montana State to avoid two more.
Thursday in California's capitol, Montana gave the coach what he wanted before watching the effort go for naught. Sacramento State outscored Montana 54-36 in the second half to send the Griz to an 83-79 loss, their second in conference and the first on the road.
Brandon Gfeller hit two threes to push Montana's lead to 20 with less than a minute expired in the second half. Sacramento State responded by diligently chipping away at the Grizzlies' lead. It was cut to eight as Jeff Wu hit a ridiculous banked three from the top of the key over Walter Wright's outstretched hands and then spun into the lane for a runner over the Montana guard with 10:50 on the clock.
Gfeller responded with a three that quieted the small, but raucous home-town crowd. But that was only temporary. Ignited by another three from the precocious freshman Wu, the Hornets embarked on 16-5 run that trimmed Montana's lead to three with just under 7 minutes to go.
As the lead dwindled, memories of Sacramento's last-second win at The Nest a season ago began to creep into the mind of DeCuire. It wasn't a carbon copy -- the Griz were devoid of Martin Breunig and Gfeller for long stretches of that second half, and that Montana lead was just 13 -- but the outcome was the same.
Sacramento made sure of it as it fed off the crowd and continued charging. Not even a small 3-point contest that was part of a short-lived Montana push that allowed the Griz to grab a seven-point lead with 4:56 to go could hold the Hornets back.
Jiday Ugbaja hit two jumpers to give the Hornets their first lead and Nick Hornsby subsequently leaked out for a fast break layup to nudge that lead to three with 1:36 remaining. Sac did the rest from the free-throw line as all of Montana's last-ditch efforts came up empty.
Sacramento State hit 61.5 percent from the field in the second on its way to 54 points, the most Montana has given up in a half this year.
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Gfeller did his best to keep the Griz in first place in the conference, hitting 5 of his 6 threes in the second half. He finished with a game-high 21. Breunig scored 20.
The loss spoiled one of Montana's most efficient first-half performances -- and most of it came without its leading scorer.
Montana jumped out to a 10-2 lead, with Breunig scoring all of the points. But he picked up two fouls and then another and played just nine minutes. It was no matter, however, as Gavin DeJong scored a career-high 10 points by the halftime break.
DeJong anchored an offense that scored 43 points, the second-best output of the season, on 51.6-percent shooting. Montana's lead reached 17 and the Griz opened a large margin on the glass and assisted on 10 of their 16 buckets.
Montana leaves Sacramento on Friday to head north to Portland, where it will attempt to gain a season sweep of the Vikings. Montana beat Portland State 79-66 on Jan. 9 in Missoula.
Notes: After holding a 17-9 rebounding edge in the first half, Montana was out boarded 25-14 and lost the battle of the glass 34-31. ... Ugbaja and Marcus Graves each scored 18 to lead the Hornets. Ugbaja's output was a career high, far outpacing his previous best of eight points... DeJong finished with 10 in a career-high 10 minutes.