SAN JOSE, Calif. - Brian Qvale probably put it best.
"They definitely knew we were there," the junior center said following the Montana Grizzlies' 62-57 loss to eighth-ranked New Mexico on Thursday in the first round of the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
No question they knew Qvale was there. Qvale scored a career-best 26 points and snared 13 rebounds to give the 14th-seeded Griz an opportunity to pull the huge upset over the third-seeded Lobos.
As Qvale turned into Plan A, what doomed the Griz was the failure to find a Plan B. The man who had been Plan A all season, Anthony Johnson, struggled through one of the toughest games of his two-year Griz basketball career.
Johnson did the honorable thing by crediting New Mexico's Dairese Gary with playing tough, physical defense. And Gary did, at least to an extent. Where Gary and his teammates were successful was in denying Johnson lanes to the basket. But AJ, he of the 42 points a week earlier, had many open jumpers, they just weren't finding their mark.
"I was getting to the spots on the court where I like it," said Johnson, who was 1-for-12 from the field. "The shot just wasn't falling."
But the Griz rallied around the struggling Johnson. If someone had said before the game that Johnson wouldn't have a field goal for the first 38 minutes and that the Griz would be within a point of the Lobos, you'd have thought them bonkers.
And yet, there they were, having countered a 17-0 game-changing run by the Lobos with a 12-2 burst of their own.
"I think we lost our composure," Montana coach Wayne Tinkle said in explaining the 17-0 run. "We talked to our guys at halftime that (New Mexico) had no choice but to come and just really pick us up, get physical with us, pressure us. And there was going to be a moment of truth where we just needed to draw a line in the sand. But we had uncharacteristic mistakes - throwing the ball into the third row, being soft with the ball, not executing.
"All of a sudden they've got all the momentum and we've got a little bit of a hole we've dug for ourselves. We said in one of the timeouts, ‘Guys, you're digging yourselves a hole and the easiest thing to do is quit digging.' "
From the time the Lobos finished their big run with a 46-32 lead, until the end of the game, they made just three field goals. That's three field goals in the final 12:43 of play.
Montana's comeback began with a 3-pointer from Derek Selvig, who played a solid game with nine points, nine rebounds and four assists in 32 minutes. It continued with an inside bucket from Qvale, a drive to the basket by Will Cherry (eight points, four assists), and Qvale finished it off with a put-back, an inside move and a free throw. Nearly the entire run came with Johnson on the bench. When it ended, the Griz were within 48-44.
They didn't quit there. The Griz were within a single point three times - at 53-52 on a bucket from Qvale, at 55-54 on two free throws by Johnson, and at 57-56 on Johnson's first field goal with 1:41 to play. Each time, the Lobos were able to stave off the Griz with free throws and the clock eventually ran out on Montana's season.
"We showed a lot of heart, a lot of character and it doesn't surprise me because that's the way it's been all year," said Tinkle, whose team finished with a 22-10 mark. "But for a few plays here and there, maybe we would have been the team (that advanced)."
New Mexico's Darington Hobson was just about everything he was cracked up to be, finishing with 11 points, 11 rebounds and six assists while playing with a sore shooting wrist he injured in the first half. Roman Martinez had 19 points and Gary 15 for the Lobos, who shot just 41 percent from the floor, 25 percent from beyond the arc and 56 percent from the line.
If Johnson's play disappointed the HP Pavilion crowd of 15,427 that had heard so much about him in the preceding days, his character did not.
"Being a scorer, you still want that ball in your hands," Johnson said. "And that's kind of the double-edged sword of being a scorer and a leader on the team. You want to be put in that position where you're either going to be a hero, or you're going to take the heat. I welcome both with open arms."
Johnson, of course, will be gone next season, along with fellow seniors Ryan Staudacher, Jack McGillis and Vassy Banny. But here's a silver lining: Montana's seniors scored just 12 points against New Mexico, and still the Griz were right there with a chance to beat a top-10 team.
Qvale's performance should whet the appetite of Griz basketball fans.
"He played with an intensity and urgency we've expected all year long," Tinkle said. "He was demanding the ball. He was working for it. He grew up big time in this thing."
And while Johnson departs, his legacy will survive.
"I really think our guys who are going to be coming back can learn a lot from his integrity and leadership," Tinkle said. "He didn't have those things where they needed to be when he first stepped on campus. Credit to him for buying in and developing those things and it's going to help him throughout the rest of his life, not just with the game of basketball."
Sports editor Bob Meseroll can be reached at 523-5265 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.