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Montana guard Mario Dunn passes the ball by the defense of Carroll's Ryan Imhoff and Oliver Carr.

Other than an uncontested layup, it's the easiest shot in basketball.

Fifteen feet away from the basket, feet set, no one defending you -- that's why they call it a free throw.

In fairness, though, there are factors that can make it tougher than it appears -- hostile fans waving all sorts of things beyond the backboard, the pressure of a tight game, little voices in your head from a previous trip to the stripe.

Whatever the reason, the Montana men's basketball team has been putting the thrill back in the free throw. In their last two games -- both losses, the second in double overtime -- the Griz have made less than half (18 of 37) from the stripe. It might not have mattered in a 19-point loss at San Francisco, but it certainly came into play in the two-point, double-overtime loss at Cal.

"You talk about it, but you try to find other areas in the game that cost you," said Montana coach Travis DeCuire, whose team hosts North Dakota State on Sunday at 7 p.m. after the Lady Griz entertain Carroll College at 2 p.m. "For us, it was defense. We're up three with 30 seconds to go in the game and we give up a 3-pointer to tie when we had just talked about not giving up threes and forcing penetration, and we fell asleep on a shooter.

"There were four or five other possessions in the last two minutes of regulation that we could have done some things better defensively which wouldn't have put us in that situation. Then maybe those free throws you're shooting are when you're up five or up seven and there's less pressure."

The shocking part for Griz fans was who was missing the free throws. Senior Jordan Gregory is an 83-percent free throw shooter in his career, but is just 3 for 10 in his last two games. He's been money in his four-year career. He missed 16 free throws all season last year; he's missed eight in six games this year.

"I have to step up with that confidence that I know I'm going to knock them down," Gregory said. "Sometimes you miss a couple early and it gets in your head; that's what happened against Cal. I just have to come early and stay late, get some repetition and get my confidence back up."

The atmosphere at Haas Pavilion made that difficult against the Bears.

"There was a video (screen) right above the (backboard) and as I was taking my dribble I kind of looked up and they zoomed in right on my face," said Gregory, who had 23 points and a career-high 12 rebounds in that game. "It was pretty intense back there. I guess that's experience for down the road."

***

The Griz enter Sunday's game against the Bison with a 2-4 record that could just as easily be 4-2, if not for a possession here or there in two double-overtime losses.

But DeCuire is confident the lessons gained while playing five of their first six on the road will benefit the Griz as the season wears on.

"The road is tough," said DeCuire, whose team will stay home to host Davidson on Wednesday. "You find out a lot about what you have inside. I think we do have a tough team, we're just not consistently tough. I think we grew up over these first couple of weeks and now we get a chance to hold down our own fort for a couple games and see if we can take the next step."

Gregory sees promise from the Griz.

"I think when we play hard and we prepare the right way, we can play and beat anybody," Gregory said. "If we come out nonchalant and lazy, we can get beat by anybody."

***

The Griz started out the season by shooting lights out from 3-point range in a pair of exhibition wins. It's been tougher ever since. The Griz are shooting 31.6 percent from 3-point range. Take away Brandon Gfeller's 14 of 29, and the rest of the team is converting on just 28 percent from downtown.

Even senior Mike Weisner, a career 43-percent shooter from beyond the arc, has struggled, shooting just 29 percent this season. Weisner can't remember another slump like this one.

"No, not at all," Weisner said. "I have shot the ball better than I am now my entire career. I'm not too worried about it; I'm still shooting the ball with a lot of confidence. The coaches have my back, my teammates have my back, so I think eventually they'll start to fall."

Gregory, a career 36.5-percent shooter from distance, has connected on just 24 percent so far. Gregory said when the deep ball isn't falling, he tries to focus on different aspects of his game.

"I was really concerned about missing at the beginning of the season and it really affected my overall game," Gregory said. "I made it a goal to ... get rebounds, that's the big thing I worked on last game. If you're just playing and working hard, I think everything else comes. The threes are going to come. We have really good shooters on the team, so it' just a matter of when."

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