Senior Night for the Montana men's basketball team might as well have been renamed Brian Qvale night. Qvale, the team's lone senior, helped bury Idaho State with 21 points and nine rebounds as the Griz blew by the Bengals 71–52 in conference play on Wednesday night.
Qvale started the Grizzlies' final regular season home game hot, scoring seven of the Montana's first 15 points despite double and occasionally triple teams under the basket. The early pressure resulted in a few Montana (11–3 in conference, 19–7) turnovers but even more defensive fouls, sending the 6-foot-11 center to the free throw line over and over again. The center made seven of 11 shots from the charity stripe.
"I should have made some more free throws," Qvale said. "But (on offense) I was trying to attack. I was trying to dunk everything."
A game which quickly moved out of reach for Idaho State (4–9, 8–17) in the second half was anything but a blowout in the first. Neither team played its best before the break, each with more than a handful of sloppy errors. The difference — which accounted for a Montana 10-point lead at the break — was that Idaho State committed a few more mistakes.
Turnovers were about even — Montana's nine to 10 for the Bengals — but the real bulk of Idaho State's troubles came from missed shots. The Bengals shot the ball more times than the Griz but at less than a 30 percent clip.
Still, without a Kareem Jamar buzzer-beating 3-point shot at the end of the half, the game was headed to halftime with the Griz up just seven points.
The Bengal's icy offense warmed in the second half, but not much further than cold. The team ended the game barely above 30 percent from the field. Bengals coach Joe O'Brien said while the team hasn't shot the ball well this season — 42 percent—a stout Big Sky Conference-leading Montana defense got into his team's head, especially in the second half.
"We had a total failure to finish the (first) half," O'Brien said. "Then I could tell when my team walked out on the court (after halftime), they didn't have the swagger they've been playing with this last week and a half."
The Bengals weren't without bright spots. Junior guard Kenny McGowen scored 13 points and fellow junior Abner Moreira pulled down seven rebounds. Senior Broderick Gilchrest also put up 13 points, despite shooting just 4–17 from the field. Those numbers just happened to be well below several Grizzlies' stats.
Qvale recorded one block during his time on the court, marking the 26th time in 26 games this season in which he's blocked a shot. Jamar, a freshman, scored 11 points for the Griz and forward Mathias Ward chipped in 13 points. Will Cherry didn't put up his usual numbers, just five points, but the sophomore guard contributed eight assists to go with six rebounds.
"We knew versatility was going to be a strength for us," head coach Wayne Tinkle said. "We challenged our guys to play big coming off the bench. We're going to need to continue to get that daily for us to do what we want to do."
Tinkle's bench players outscored Idaho State's bench 30 to eight.
Next up, the Grizzlies hit the road for their final three games of the regular season, including two in conference. Wednesday's victory moved Montana a game ahead of Northern Colorado, which plays later this week, for first in the Big Sky. Qvale said his team's performance against the Bengals was good, but his focus is on winning the conference and hosting the Big Sky tournament.
"This was a great game, but we've still got a lot to do," Qvale said. "The best part of the season is still to come."