Jacks fall in conference play to Montana, 62-56
BY KEVIN BERTRAM —
In a preseason Big Sky coach’s poll, the Montana Grizzlies were picked to finish first in the conference and capture the conference crown for a second straight year. The Jacks were picked to finish dead last and get nowhere near it.
In a gritty, 62-56 defeat to Montana where the game was decided in the final minute, the Jacks did not look the part of that last-place team. Despite shooting a frigid 23 percent and turning the ball over nine times in the second half, the Jacks were still in it when it counted, down by only four with forty seconds left in the game.
The Jacks had multiple chances during the following possession to get closer. A steal and two offensive rebounds afforded senior and freshman guards Gabe Rogers and DeWayne Russell, between them, three looks from deep that did not fall.
“Sometimes, the ball goes in,” Rogers said. “Sometimes, it doesn’t. They shot a 40-footer that went in. Our shots just didn’t go in during the second half.”
Rogers led all scorers in the game with 16 on 5-of-13 shooting from the field and 5-of-11 shooting from beyond the arc. Russell added 12 points on 3-of-14 shooting from the field. Junior forward Max Jacobsen, who scored a career-high 22 in Monday’s game against Montana State, finished with eight points and seven rebounds.
Montana senior guard Will Cherry — widely considered one of the best point guards in the nation and only a game returned from injury — had 12 points on 3-of-9 shooting from the field. The Grizzlies had a balanced scoring attack: including Cherry, four players finished with 12 points apiece.
For the game, Montana outscored NAU in the paint, 24-14, after the Jacks had limited the Grizzlies to only six paint points in the first half. Turnovers and rebounds were both close categories, and it was ultimately the second half field goal percentage — 45 percent for UM to 23 percent for NAU — that led to the win for reigning Big Sky champions.
Head coach Jack Murphy said his team became too comfortable with outside shots in the second half, and that it ultimately led to the low shooting percentage.
“We wanted to penetrate and attack — we kept talking about attacking the paint,” Murphy said. “It’s one of those games where we were looking for the four or five point shot, and it’s not out there on the floor. We took too many threes in the second half. I think that’s part of the reason we shot such a low percentage.”
Following up senior guard Stallon Saldivar passing 400 career assists in the Jacks’ last game against Montana State, Rogers passed 1,000 career points in this one. He becomes the 26th player in school history to do so.
“It’s a great accomplishment, but I’m really just thinking about the loss,” Rogers said. “I’m sure once I settle down, I’ll be able to look back on it and say, ‘Wow, not too many people can do that, and I was one of them.’ Right now, I’m just focused on the loss.”
In the first half, the Jacks came out, for the second-straight game, with a starting lineup featuring both Jacobsen and Saldivar. They led, 33-29, at the break. Rogers paced NAU with ten points, and Russell added five points and four assists. Both teams shot nearly even — 46 percent for NAU to 44 percent for Montana — but the Jacks outscored the Grizzlies in the paint, ten to six.
At the start of the second half, the Jacks came out cold, shooting only 36 percent from the field while turning the ball over four times in the first five minutes of the period. The Grizzlies took their first lead of the game since early in the first half at the 8:59 mark, and the game was a back-and-forth affair from there on out.
Russell said the team had hoped Montana would wear down as the game progressed.
“With the elevation, we definitely wanted to put the pressure on them,” Russell said. “In the second half, it got a little tougher to do that. I thought we fought hard throughout the entire game trying to do just that.”
This was the Jacks second Big Sky Conference game.
Murphy said he hopes his program can eventually come to resemble that of the Grizzlies.
“They’re a very well coached team,” Murphy said. “I’m sure getting Will Cherry back was a big boost for them. I thought they looked winded at times during the second half, but they played through it and were tough. They’re the defending conference champions — they have been where we want to go. They have an attitude about winning that we’re trying to still develop.”
NAU next travels to Boulder to take on Colorado, a Pac-12 team, for a brief out-of-conference interlude. The Jacks will return to the Walkup Skydome for a return to conference play: a January 3 matchup against Sacramento State.