MISSOULA, Mont. – Montana used a strong second half and held off a late rally by the Lumberjacks to win the Big Sky Conference opener over Northern Arizona Wednesday afternoon at Dahlburg Arena 83-80, taking the early momentum in the league race.
"Our guys did not respond well to the start the second half," said Head Coach Mike Adras. "It was huge because it kept us at bay and prevented us from making a run early to climb back in this game. It made the game tougher for us to get back into. Every time we made a run Will Cherry seemed to have an answer for them. He did whatever he wanted to in the second half."
Montana (9-4, 1-0) started the second half with 6-0 run out of the locker room, eventually building a 16-point lead in the second half. Senior guard Will Cherry scored a team-high 27 points, including 21 points in the second half.
NAU fought back to cut the lead to single digits several times over the final 10 minutes before a late push in the final minutes. The Lumberjacks cut the lead to five points at 76-71 with a jumper with 1:10 left. After two free throws by Art Stewart, Gabe Rogers hit a jumper and the Lumberjacks fouled again with the Griz hitting one of two at the charity stripe.
Jones hit a jumper from the left corner to cut the lead to four points with 27 seconds left at 79-75. After a missed shot by Cherry, Eric Platt was fouled and hit a pair of free throws, pulling within two at 79-77. Shawn Stockton then was fouled by Austin Smith and hit a pair of free throws on the next possession to extend the lead back to four points.
Smith was fouled on a put back, hitting the second of two free throws before Cherry sealed the game with two free throws with six seconds left. Jones added a layup at the buzzer for the final margin.
Jones finished with a career-high 30 points to lead the Lumberjacks. Platt had 19 points off the bench with five three-pointers and Rogers finished with 15.
"There is tremendous disappointment in the locker room," said Adras. "We have to push things aside and learn from this. We don't get much time to think about it with our game on Friday afternoon at Montana State."
The Grizzlies had five players in double figures led by Cherry's team best 27 with 16 points contributed from Selvig and 13 from Brian Qvalve.
The Lumberjacks shot 56 percent for the game, shooting better than 50 percent in both halves of the game. But NAU was out-scored by 10 points at the free throw line, taking 19 fewer attempts than Montana. The Griz went 20-for-32 from the line, while NAU hit 10-of-13 attempts in the game.
Montana also got seven offensive rebounds in the second half.
"The offensive rebounds led to a pretty good 52 percent in the second half," said Adras. "If you don't get the second chance opportunities near the basket maybe our defensive percentage is better. We did not bring our best defense tonight and the toughness you have to have to win a road game in the Big Sky Conference."
Platt and Jones led the Lumberjacks in the first half, scoring a combined 22 points. Jones hit his first five shots of the half, scoring 11 points, while Platt hit three triples off the bench to record 11 points in the opening 20 minutes.
Johanssen picked up two early fouls with a foul and technical two minutes into the game. Lepley came off the bench to score four points in his place.
NAU led by as many as seven points early in the game, shooting 53 percent from the floor over the first 20 minutes but had eight turnovers. Montana got to the line 13 times in the first half with the help of the Lumberjacks' foul trouble as four players picked up two fouls. The Griz led by three at the half 35-32 behind 14 first-half points from Selvig and out-scoring the Lumberjacks 21-11 over the final 12 minutes of the half.
NAU travels across Montana to play at Montana State on Friday afternoon in a New Year's Eve matinee special at 4 p.m. The game can be heard on 105.1 FM The Big Talker and seen on www.bigskytv.org.