You might think that the University of Montana men's basketball game against Portland State on Thursday night would be played as much between the ears as between the lines.
You might think that, but you'd be wrong, according to the Grizzlies.
The defending Big Sky Conference champion Vikings (6-1 in league, 15-5 overall) have beaten the Griz (5-3, 11-9) four straight times. The last two were the most distasteful - a 108-56 dismantling last March in Missoula and a 72-45 rout in the opening game of the league slate last December in Portland. Put away your calculators. That's 180-101.
"They've definitely had our number," Montana senior Jordan Hasquet said. "Last time we played them it was more us not being able to score; we were a little beat up on a long road trip. … The game before that, I don't know, that one they literally could not miss, they were unconscious. We definitely didn't play well."
The Griz, though, are taking the it's-just-another-game approach.
"But they are ahead of us in the standings," Griz senior Kyle Sharp said. "We want to beat them because we know if we want to win a conference championship at some point we have to beat them. If we can do it now, we know we can do it later."
The Griz were never in the game in Portland. The Vikings took advantage of 16 first-half turnovers by the Griz and led 22-4 right off the bat.
The Vikings used a half-court trapping defense in that game, exploiting Anthony Johnson's inexperience at point guard. Johnson was playing just his third game at the point after the suspension of Ceylon Elgin-Taylor, who has since returned to the active roster.
"Seven turnovers, oh yeah," Johnson said of the game in Portland. "I'm a lot more comfortable handling the ball since that game. That was like my third game with such a huge responsibility on my shoulders. I'm sort of in my comfort zone, ready for whatever they throw at us. It's going to be a team effort. We all have to come out with the mindset that we can't be afraid of the ball, we have to be on the attack at all times and be ready for their pressure."
And while it won't be a surprise this time, Montana coach Wayne Tinkle still expects to see it.
"I'll expect it again because they've done it in their recent games as well," Tinkle said. "We're much more secure with the ball than we were five weeks ago. Anthony's playing with another level of confidence, we have Ceylon back and we've worked on some things offensively."
Johnson, the league's leading scorer in conference games at 22.0 ppg, will be pitted against the defending Big Sky MVP, 5-foot-6 dynamo Jeremiah Dominguez. The senior point guard is averaging 12.0 points, 2.6 assists and a league-best 1.9 steals a game.
He's surrounded by a stable of sharp-shooters in Phil Nelson, Andre Murray and Kyle Coston. The Vikings average two more 3-pointers a game than any other team in the league.
Inside, the Vikings have Jamie Jones and Julius Thomas, while Dominic Waters backs up Dominguez to the tune of 12.3 ppg.
"Their biggest strength, I think, is in transition," Tinkle said. "When they push the ball they have guys who can get to the rim and guys who can spot up and hit threes. Your conversion defense is the No. 1 key and we've really gotten good at that the last several ballgames. Taking care of the ball and taking character shots really aids in your transition defense."
Tinkle said he expects Griz post players Hasquet, Sharp, Brian Qvale and Derek Selvig to encounter double-teams when they touch the ball down low.
"We have to pound it at them," Tinkle said "When we pound the ball inside, good things happen. They double-team the low post. We've seen teams hurt them in recent games when they do that. We can't let that be a strength of theirs. We have to make them pay."
Montana ranks second in the league in home attendance (3,266) behind Weber State (3,861), but the Griz haven't had a big-game atmosphere this season. Tinkle and the Griz - who are 9-1 at home - would love to see it Thursday night.
"I'm proud of the way our guys have defended home court," Tinkle said. "We have the defending league champion with the returning MVP - one of the most talented teams in our league. If we could get as close to a sellout as possible, I know first-hand as a player and as a coach what it does for your level of energy. I think it would be a real disappointment if we didn't have a nice crowd."
And Tinkle, too, downplays any revenge factor.
"I really think it really is going to be all about X's and O's," Tinkle said. "The school I came from, every game's about pride and heart."
NOTES: Portland State owns a school-record nine-game road winning streak. … The Vikings' 108-56 win last season in Missoula set school records for most points in a Big Sky game and largest margin of victory over a Division I team. … The Vikings lead the league in treys, but they've also attempted 119 more than any other team. … Montana leads the league in scoring defense at 66.5 ppg. … The Griz are second in free throw shooting at 71.4 percent. … Griz junior Ryan Staudacher is second in the league in 3-point accuracy at 49.4 percent.
Sports editor Bob Meseroll can be reached at 523-5265 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Portland State at Montana Griz
Thursday, 7:05 p.m.,
Dahlberg Arena (7,321)
Tickets: $5 for general admission, $6-25 for reserved.
Radio: KXGZ 101.5 FM.
Records: Portland State is 6-1 in the Big Sky Conference, 15-5 overall. Montana is 5-3, 11-9.
Last outing: Portland State beat visiting Eastern Washington 83-61 last Saturday. Montana beat Northern Colorado 68-59 on Sunday in Missoula.
Series: Montana leads 22-18.
Last meeting: Portland State won 72-45 last Dec. 20 in Portland.
Up next: Portland State plays at Montana State on Sunday. Montana hosts Eastern Washington on Saturday.
14-Kyle Coston, 6-8, jr. 6.4 ppg
21-Phil Nelson, 6-7, so. 12.5 ppg
44-Jamie Jones, 6-7, jr. 9.2 ppg
3-Andre Murray, 6-2, sr. 10.9 ppg
10-Jeremiah Dominguez, 5-6, sr. 12.0 ppg
2-Jordan Hasquet, 6-9, sr. 10.9 ppg
44-Jack McGillis, 6-6, jr. 8.6 ppg
40-Kyle Sharp, 6-7, sr. 5.3 ppg
3-Ryan Staudacher, 6-4, jr. 8.5 ppg
23-Anthony Johnson, 6-2, jr. 16.2 ppg