Montana gains a valuable lesson in losing to Troy in the Zootown Classic | Finals UM Grizzlies

MISSOULA — Montana had a dry run of what it takes to win a Big Sky Conference tournament title in March when it hosted the Zootown Classic Thursday through Saturday.

The competition increased every time the Griz entered the court as they played three basketball games in as many days. They clinched a win in the opener, had to make a second-half comeback in the second game and lost 73-62 in the last game to Troy on Saturday.

UM coach Travis DeCuire felt Troy would bring the most talent and he was looking to face the toughest opponent last, having hopefully won two games. The game had a championship feel throughout and will serve as a learning experience for a team that has nine freshmen who still need to gel to top last season’s poll spot of third place in Big Sky.

“I want to become a team that can reach the championship game. If you get there on Saturday, anything can happen,” DeCuire said. “I think for us now we’re going to walk away and say, ‘Okay, we’re a team that can get to that third night.’

“Now we have to get better at producing that night. Mental exhaustion, physical exhaustion. How do you play through this? How do you do this? How do you fare with that? This is a growth area for us and we have plenty of time to get there.”

The Griz were tied 52-52 with 10:38 to play but found themselves on the wrong end of an 8-0 run. The Trojans turned an offensive rebound into a bucket, forced a turnover, scored another basket from an offensive rebound, forced another turnover, made two free throws, grabbed another offensive board after a miss from Griz and made two free throws in under three minutes.

Montana wasn’t done yet and found his way back into the game with a 3-pointer from Lonnell Martin Jr. that took the deficit to 66-60. Aanen Moddy, who scored a game-high 16 points, then had a 3-pointer go in and out of the cylinder that could have reduced the deficit to three with 2:38 remaining had it gone in.

Troy beat UM the rest of the way 7-2 and 21-10 over the final 10-01 after the 52-52 draw. The Trojans were 18-of-19 for the second-half charity streak and 21-of-25 for the game.

“I felt like there were moments where we hit ourselves,” DeCuire said. “They did the pieces on the track. They took the game for the last eight minutes.

“We had the opportunity to build a bigger lead at the end of the first half and then get a good start into the half and there were just too many mistakes. Instead of going to 14, we’re going to 6. Then we didn’t get stopped defensively for the first three possessions and I think after that they just had way too much confidence. We lost some and it took us a while to try and get them back.”

Troy coach Scott Cross agreed that the hot start to the second half was crucial. His team wasn’t down at halftime this season, so this was a new experience.

Nelson Phillips, who scored a team high with 14 points, threw a dunk and converted the and-1 on the first possession of the second half. Then, on the next two trips, he smacked a 3-pointer and a long 2-pointer right in the face with his hand.

The Griz matched those early baskets and rose by six to level their 32-26 halftime lead, but an 8-0 run from Troy put UM in a 47-44 hole. Close baskets from Mack Anderson, who missed Friday’s game, and a 3-pointer from Moody ended the game 52-52.

The Griz made just one of their last 10 field goal attempts, shooting 35.8% from the ground. They had 11 assists on 19 field goals scored, six of those assists coming from Josh Bannan, who added eight points and eight rebounds. After point guard Brandon Whitney was out, the Griz went with several different lineups, including some with three forwards in which Bannan handled the ball so Moody and Martin could rest.

“I thought in the second half we got off to a good start and it kind of gave our guys confidence and then our guys were just more defensive,” Cross said. “At halftime I told them that we didn’t play well defensively, we didn’t play well offensively, we want to shoot all 3s, we don’t share the ball. It was like watching a bad AAU game.

“I said the good thing is we’re six behind so that’s a really good sign you’ve played poorly but we’re still in that game. So everyone was really locked in defensively. One of our best defensive performances in the second half.”

Tournament Recap

Josh Bannan was named Zootown Classic MVP. In three tournament games, he averaged 14.3 points, 13.3 rebounds and 5.7 assists.

“Bannan is, for me, one of the best post players I’ve seen at any level,” Cross said. “When you see him on tape, he scares the shit out of you. He is 6-10. He can shoot it. he can drive you It can come from the pick and roll. He can pass. It’s hard to double him in post because he can pass it. His footwork is amazing. I think he can play in the NBA. I think he’s that talented.

“Then they have a couple of marksmen who can bypass him. They pose a lot of challenges but our guys were really locked in and sat down and guarded and we played great team defense and that’s why we were able to pull it out.

The five other players on the tournament team were Nelson Phillips and Duke Miles from Troy, Andrew Rohde and Thomas Riley from St Thomas, and Ziggy Reid from Merrimack.

Miles thought the experience of playing three games in three days would be beneficial for the conference tournament season. Troy lost in the Sun Belt semifinals last year.

“We can take it with us because we will play in different atmospheres and there will be times when we will be cold or hot,” he said. “So playing against such good teams who can shoot very well and move the ball is just a good experience for us and we can just keep going.”

Montana, Troy and St. Thomas all went 2-1 and shared the tournament title three ways. Merrimack was the only team not to win.

This was the second annual Zootown Classic. DeCuire said he is already trying to recruit a field for another edition of the tournament in the future.

“I think it’s good for us,” he said. “It’s just hard for us to come home and get home. It’s hard to get people to come to Missoula. If they can come and maybe get two neutral games, then it’s a little more intriguing for them. Our hospitality is pretty good. I think they will have a good experience if they come. I think the word is out. We will see. If we can fill it further, then gladly.”

72 St Thomas, 61 Merrimack

Riley Miller scored 15 of his game-strength 28 points in the second half as St. Thomas topped Merrimack 35-27 after the break to convert a 37-34 lead into a 72-61 win.

The Tommies finished the Zootown Classic 2-1 by winning their last two games after opening with a 78-59 loss to Montana on Thursday. They then beat Troy 78-76 in a Friday buzzer beater.

Andrew Rohde, who hit that game winner, dished out a game high of eight assists to go against Merrimack with six points and five rebounds. Ziggy Reid led Merrimack with 22 points on 7-of-10 shooting with five assists.

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