Senior big man blocks foes as Griz eye March
The Portland State forward saw his break from the top of the key. The middle was open, or nearly open, with just one man to beat. Phil Nelson drove down the lane toward the basket, attacking the only man in his way head on.
That last line of defense, Montana Grizzly Brian Qvale, had no intention of letting Nelson get to the basket easily. In fact, he loved situations just like this: a chance to protect his rim and his teammates.
So when Nelson launched into the air in a dunk attempt, stretching his 6-foot-8 frame to its full height, Qvale did the same. Qvale's bear paw of a hand, at the end of a tree trunk-like arm sprouting from the shoulder of his 6-foot-11 body, met the ball in midair.
"I kind of just pinned him," said Qvale, a junior during his clash with Nelson, now the lone senior for the Grizzly men's basketball team. "I met him at the highest point."
The Griz got the ball and eventually the win in that game in January 2009. Qvale made just a single block in the game, but it's one he remembers.
Recalling every block in the center's career is becoming more and more difficult with each passing game, though, as Qvale keeps adding victims to a long shot-block hit list. Montana's monster in the middle broke a 19-year-old Big Sky Conference record in January by swatting his 213th shot.
"I thought it was a neat gesture," Engellant said, adding that he was glad the record could go to another Grizzly.
And what was said in the passing-of-the-torch ceremony?
"I told him it was too easy for him," Engellant joked. "I should have set the record a little higher. He still had half a season left: It wasn't like it was even close."
Since then, Qvale has continued to strengthen his case as one of the most dominant big men in the conference's history. While leading the Griz to an 18–7 record, he's extended the career blocks record up to 232, including a Montana-record 80 this season. That ranks second in conference history, 13 behind Slim Millen's mark five years ago at Idaho State.
There's no guarantee Qvale will pass Millen, but with at least five games left on the season slate — and considering Qvale has recorded at least one block in every game this year and two or more in 22 of 25 — it could come down to the wire.
Blocking is almost primal for Qvale. He feeds off the momentum created by denied shots. He feels the charge from the roar of the crowd when it sees a feeble shot slapped out of the air.
"The crowds have been great lately and if I can do anything to help fire them up then I'll definitely do it," he said of the fans who populate Dahlberg Arena on game days, an average of nearly 5,000.
In blocking, it's advantageous being a hair shy of seven feet tall, but the real key is anticipation. There's a sense to it, Qvale said, that you can't explain — or at least he couldn't.
"It's something you either have a feel for or don't," said Qvale, a health and human performance major at UM.
And while Qvale came to the UM with plenty of raw talent, said Griz head coach Wayne Tinkle, he wouldn't be where he is today in the record books without a recently acquired spark. The Williston, N.D., native has been forced into a leadership role this season that requires him to play with an edge, something missing from his toolbox until quite recently.
It first had to appear in the NCAA tournament last year when the Griz faced a tough New Mexico squad in the first round. With Griz star Anthony Johnson uncharacteristically cold shooting the ball, Qvale stepped up for a then career-high 26 points and 13 rebounds. The center physically dominated a smaller Lobos roster.
"He's such a nice kid, real quiet," said Tinkle. "With the finish he had last year, it really reaffirmed that edge we want him to have. It proves you can be a nice guy off the floor but be a little nasty on the court."
Qvale's future in the game may just come down to that, his willingness to get his hands a little dirty, the coach said. Qvale plays with attitude compared to his younger self, but he's still no Shaquille O'Neal, and NBA scouts are noticing. He's usually the biggest guy on the court, Tinkle said, and he needs to play like it.
"I think he holds the cards to his future," Tinkle said. "If he wants to go play for money, he's going to need to get even more nastiness in him."