Griz still the best: Hawks push league-leading Montana but fall 72-67

GRAND FORKS — Before the game, there was little doubt as to the best team in the Big Sky Conference. Montana had put to rest any doubt with 10-straight wins — including six consecutive on the road.
The Griz left The Betty on Saturday happy as they took a hard-earned 72-67 win over North Dakota before 2,089 fans. It was their 11th straight triumph and school-record seventh consecutive road victory.
But UND left its home floor fairly satisfied, too, as the Fighting Hawks went toe-to-toe with a bigger, deeper — and perhaps the best defensive — team they have seen this season.
“We can’t win the league but we’re doing a great job of looking at the bigger picture,” said UND’s Cortez Seales, who led UND with 19 points. “We have to win three games in a row in March and I think we’re headed in the right direction. We grew as a team.”
There wasn’t much to fault regarding UND’s game. The smaller Hawks outrebounded the Griz (33-31); they withstood Montana’s trapping defense on the perimeter; and managed to surge twice when it looked like the Griz were poised to take control.
In the end, the difference was the play of 6-foot-8, 253-pound junior Jamar Akoh, who scored 23 points and grabbed 11 rebounds.
“That’s our strength,” said Montana coach Travis DeCuire of the Griz’ inside height and considerable muscle. “Our advantage is establishing the post.”
And another factor was UND’s lack of perimeter shooting as the Hawks went 3-for-17 beyond the arc. “We had wide-open shots and executed great but just missed some shots that we’ve been making lately,” said UND coach Brian Jones.
But Jones couldn’t fault much more.
“I wanted to see a team that would come out and fight for one another and fight for the process. I saw that,” said Jones. “There has been growth. The challenge for our guys is to understand what that looks like and to sustain it.”
Montana, which beat UND 109-79 last month in Missoula, led 39-31 at the half. But UND rallied and took a 47-45 lead on two Geno Crandall free throws with 12:52 to go. The Griz, however, continued to exploit the mismatch underneath with Akoh. And they also got key perimeter points from Michael Oguine.
Crandall’s basket with 5:20 left gave UND a 57-56 lead but Griz leading scorer Ahmad Rorie responded with a three-pointer. Montana led the rest of the way.
Leading 62-60, Oguine (12 points) scored on an offensive rebound at 2:07, hit a three-pointer with 47 seconds to go and two free throws with 36 seconds leff for a 69-62 lead.
“That (Oguine) three-pointer was big,” said UND’s Conner Avants, who scored 15 points in a constant physical battle against Akoh. “That gave them some separation.”
UND dropped to 3-8 in the league and 8-15 overall while the Griz improved to 11-0 and 18-5.
Montana has been UND’s biggest thorn since the Hawks joined the Big Sky in 2012. Montana has now swept the season series against UND four times.
The Hawks, however, ended the week with a one-point win over Montana State and a five-point loss against the best team in the Big Sky. It wasn’t a horrible weekend.
“We just have to get better,” said Jones. “We have to start moving up the ladder. We have to position ourselves for the best showing we can get in Reno.
“Even with a loss today, we got better this week.”