Montana rallies past Bears, sweeps men's hoops season series
GREELEY -- As it has more than a few times this season, Northern Colorado Basketball took a big and early punch to the chin in the first few minutes Thursday night of its 75-68 loss to Montana at Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion.
The Grizzlies hit their first five 3-pointers and missed just one shot (from the floor or the free-throw line) through the game's first seven-plus minutes and led 25-13 before the Bears even knew what hit them.
At that point it looked like Montana (18-6, 11-1 Big Sky) was going to run roughshod all over the home team.
But, unlike its done very often this year, B.J. Hill's young Northern Colorado squad (7-16, 4-8) picked itself up off the mat and shoved right back, taking a lead about six minutes later, at 26-25, and led by as many as seven in the second half, at 46-39.
The Bears just couldn't sustain that momentum against one of the Big Sky's best teams this season and faded down the stretch. They surrendered 27 turnovers in the loss—that's 55 giveaways in two games against Montana this season—and just looked dazed and frustrated toward the end after having so much success early on.
"We showed that we can take a punch and throw one back, and [we] executed really well," Hill said. "We did what we practiced and what we game-planned. And then Montana does what good programs and what teams that are fighting for championships do: they counterpunched and cranked up their intensity. That's the next step that our young team needs to learn how to do.
"Our problem is that right now we don't do a good job of adjusting on the go, in terms of going, 'OK they're going to go to a three-quarters court press, we've turned it over a couple times, this is what we need to do.' We didn't do that tonight."
Mike Proctor led the Bears with a career-high 18 points. He made six of eight shots from the field and converted six of his eight free-throw tries. He's elevated his game in his final run through the Big Sky slate, and he's up to and 11 points and eight rebounds-per-game average.
Sophomore Tate Unruh scored 11 points in the first half Thursday and continued his surge of late with 15 points overall.
Connor Osborne added 12 points, two blocks and led all players with seven rebounds as Northern Colorado (the Big Sky's best rebounding team) outrebounded Montana 33-24.
Northern Colorado couldn't stop Montana guard Will Cherry, though, who led all scorers with a career-high 30 points, including 18 in the second half. Derek Selvig and Kareem Jamar added 12 apiece for Montana, who kept pace with Weber State in the race for this year's Big Sky regular-season championship.
The Wildcats defeated Northern Arizona 67-49 Thursday.
Northern Colorado trailed just 36-35 at halftime before starting the second half on a 11-3 run to hold that seven-point advantage, 46-39, with 15 minutes to play.
Then, the wheels fell off a bit, as Montana nearly doubled its score the rest of the way. The Bears' 13 turnovers after that didn't help. For the game, Montana got 36 points off the Bears' miscues.
"When you're responsible for almost half their points … I mean, 36 of their 75 half points comes from us, not necessarily from them," Hill said. "They obviously cranked up the pressure defensively, but it was more a lack of our toughness, both mentally and physically, than something they did to cause that."
Now, the Bears will turn their attention toward Saturday, where a noon home game awaits against Montana State, which lost to Sacramento State on Thursday.
But, Hill says he and his team can't even think that far ahead right now. They've got to think on a much smaller scale.
"My aspirations are to get better tomorrow," he said. "I don't think past tomorrow. I don't think past Montana State. There's no point in it. We have to come to practice with a sense of urgency and a mental toughness to get better every possession of every drill. We can't control anything but that, so if we try to worry about anything past that we're wasting the mental energy that we don't have right now. We need to be focused completely on us and what we can do, and that's just learning from our mistakes tonight and coming to work tomorrow."