MISSOULA — Karl Nicholas couldn’t practice on Tuesday. Montana’s freshman forward was sick with a stomach virus and needed to rest up and rehydrate.
He returned to practice on Wednesday, kept taking his medicine Thursday and said he felt fine heading into the game against North Dakota, when he unloaded the most complete game of his young career in the Grizzlies’ 109-79 rout of the defending Big Sky champions at Dahlberg Arena.
“A lot of people are sleeping on me,” Nicholas said. “They think just because I’m a freshman I can’t do a lot. So I have show them, give it my all and my everything. I can’t just think they’re going to give it to me. I have to go take it. That’s how I feel about it on every play.”
Nicholas threw down several highlight dunks and finished with 17 points as one of four Griz to score in double digits. Ahmaad Rorie scored 22 points, Jamar Akoh recorded his fourth double-double with 22 points and 11 rebounds, and Mike Oguine chipped in 16 points.
The Grizzlies’ 109 points are the most they’ve scored against a Div. I team since they had 109 against Idaho State in March 1991.
It’s the first time since Dec. 1999 the Griz (10-5, 3-0) have scored 100 points against a Division I team (Youngstown State) and the first time overall since Dec. 2009 (Great Falls). Their season high coming in was 87 points on Dec. 28 against Northern Arizona.
Nicholas was a perfect 8 of 8 from the field as he scored in double figures for the third time this season and the first since Nov. 21 against UC Santa Barbara. He scored 10 points in eight first-half minutes and ended with five rebounds, three blocks, three steals and two assists.
“He’s athletic,” Griz head coach Travis DeCuire said. “He’s a high-motor kid. This style of play fits him the best, and that’s what we brought him in for is run, make plays, block shots and finish. This is one of the types of games he’s going to look forward to the most.”
Nearly half the Grizzlies’ points came in the paint as they outscored the Fighting Hawks 54-20. They shot 61.5 percent from the field and had assists on 21 of 40 baskets.
Montana held Geno Crandall, North Dakota’s leading scorer coming into the game, to nine points on 3-of-8 shooting. He picked up his fourth foul with 14:57 left and played 28 minutes.
“He’s a real aggressive player,” Rorie said. “He’s real shifty, so we tried to have two guys wherever he’s at. … We were locked in and focused on stopping him because he makes their offense go.”
The Griz scored the game’s first 14 points in the opening 5:53. North Dakota started 0 of 10 from the field, turned the ball over three times and had one shot blocked. Montana held the Fighting Hawks scoreless until Tray Buchanan made a 3-pointer at the 7:16 mark.
“It was keep these guys out of the paint as much as possible,” DeCuire said of his team's defensive strategy. “We clogged up the first drive and had to sprint to shooters from there. I thought we did a good job of scrapping and rotating one more time, one more time. And then got some guys taking some shots that they probably didn’t really want, but they were late clock and had to take.”
After North Dakota (4-10, 0-3) pulled within 18-8, Montana went on a 9-0 run that included Nicholas getting up from falling down, running the length of the court and blocking Buchanan’s 3-point attempt in transition. He added back-to-back fast break dunks.
“After the back-to-back dunks, that’s when I felt it was probably go-time,” he said. “I didn’t think I would have (17) points. I could have had 20 but messed up my free throws (1 of 5). I have to work on that.”
Nicholas gave the Griz a 29-10 lead when he threw down a transition slam off a pass that Timmy Falls dumped off over his head to Nicholas in the lane.
Montana closed the half on a 13-5 run after North Dakota got within 37-24. The Griz led 50-29 at the break, the most they’ve scored in the first half this season.
North Dakota switched up its lineup in the first half, and Jafar Kinsey and Garrett Franken scored five early points to get the Fighting Hawks within 53-34. The Griz followed with 10-0 run that included six points from Akoh to build a 29-point lead, 63-34.
Akoh scored four points in four seconds to give Montana its first lead of 30 or more points, 79-48, with 11:15 to play. He threw down a dunk assisted by Falls, stole the inbounds pass and converted a layup.
The Griz built their lead to 83-48 thanks to a 13-0 run capped off by a Nicholas dunk. They led by as many as 40 points, 98-58, on a Nicholas and-1 conversion.
The Griz cracked the 100-point mark on Admir Besovic's layup with 3:20 to play, going up 100-64.