MISSOULA — Josh Bannan scored 23 points on Sunday, but none were bigger than the last two.
The sophomore forward from Australia hit a critical turnaround jumper as the shot clock expired to give Montana a 74-68 lead with under a minute to go and the host Grizzlies held on down the stretch to beat rival Montana State 80-74 in front of 5,285 fans at Dahlberg Arena in a nationally televised game on ESPNU.
UM earned a weekend sweep of the rival Bobcats as the Lady Griz topped MSU on Saturday evening. The teams split the season series after MSU won the first meeting 66-59 on Jan. 9 in Bozeman. The Bobcats were looking for their first regular-season sweep of the Grizzlies since 2010, while Sunday's win was Montana's 20th out of the last 22 meetings with MSU.
"We have a tough group," Bannan said. "We've got a lot of guys who were willing to put their body on the line for the team and that's the kind of thing that wins these basketball games. It comes down to effort and I think our effort was super tonight and guys were really bought in on that and that's why I think we walked away with the win."
"Big win, big win. I watched our game in Bozeman maybe four or five times and it was a hard one to swallow because I thought our gameplan was on point," UM coach Travis DeCuire added. "I thought we did a good job of executing the things we wanted to execute. But the biggest thing that was hard to swallow was we just didn't make shots and we walk away fairly emotional about that loss but at the same time it gives you confidence at home because you typically shoot better at home and so we had a lot of confidence going into this one."
The Grizzlies (18-11, 11-7 Big Sky Conference) led for nearly the entire game, taking a 44-33 lead into the halftime break after a Bannan 3-pointer at the buzzer. Montana built a 17-point lead early in the second half but the Bobcats (21-7, 13-4) powered back behind the two-pronged attack from Xavier Bishop and Jubrile Belo.
Bishop, who finished with 27 points, beat his defender off the dribble and scored at will late in the second half, bringing the Bobcats to within four points of UM multiple times. Belo was nearly as unstoppable inside, finishing with 21 points.
"We're always confident, no matter how much we're down we know we always have a good run in us," Bishop said. "There was a couple of loose balls that didn't bounce our way but that's basketball. Things happen and you've got to move on and get ready for the next play.
"We definitely started being aggressive but it was too late. We already dug ourselves into a deep hole early in the first half. When you're trying to play hard and come back you tend to run out of gas and we definitely dug ourselves into a hole and it was hard to get out of."
Nick Gazelas made a layup with 2:34 to go to bring the Bobcats within 70-66, but Brandon Whitney answered on the other end with a basket plus he was fouled.
He missed the free throw and Bishop brought it within four points again before Bannan's turnaround jumper to beat the shot clock. Montana then iced the game down the stretch with free throws, four of which came from Robby Beasley III.
"I got to give them credit they came out with an energy and a purpose today that we didn't for whatever reason," MSU coach Danny Sprinkle said. "It's kind of embarrassing the purpose that we came out with. We were on our heels from the jump. They were driving us, they were attacking us and we were like flat-footed stuck in sand. That's probably the worst defensively that we played. We got to up the ante from a toughness stance. We got to get better."
Both teams shot 51 percent from the field, but MSU, which still sits atop the Big Sky Conference, went just 1-for-8 from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies sank 11 of their 28 attempts from the 3-point line.
Bannan led the Grizzlies in points as well as rebounds (seven) and assists (three). Whitney added 17 points, while Beasley had 13. Belo had a double-double with 16 rebounds as well.
"This might've been the biggest game of my life too to be honest since last year we weren't able to play them," Whitney said. "But this year with having the fans and that atmosphere is crazy."
"I think we have a tough group," DeCuire added. "I think we have a group that's about the right things. Guys show up early win, lose, or draw, they show up early and work. They allow our staff to coach. They want to be a part of success so I think our frame of mind and the way we're built is about winning and so I'm always going to be proud of them for their efforts and the way we push forward through adversity."
Montana will wrap up its season with home games against Northern Colorado on March 3 and Sacramento State on March 5. Montana State will host Southern Utah on March 1, before also rounding out its regular season at home with Sac St. (March 3) and UNC (March 5). The teams will then head to the Big Sky men's basketball tournament March 9-12 in Boise, Idaho.
"Hopefully we see them again on a Saturday and we get a chance to do this thing one more time," DeCuire added.