MISSOULA – Over the last two weeks, fatigue was starting to hit the Montana Grizzlies.
That’s to be expected, considering the grind the regular season takes on teams. After a relatively easy win over Southern Utah in its final homestand, Montana struggled against Northern Arizona but squeaked out a win. That was followed by a defeat at the hands of Portland State last Thursday.
But Montana bounced back on Saturday by beating Sac State 86-68 to claim the regular-season title and the No. 1 seed in this week’s Big Sky Conference tournament.
One difference in Saturday’s contest was the insertion of sophomore guard Timmy Falls into the starting lineup. That move capped a four-game stretch where Falls has been a spark plug of late as the Grizzlies wrapped up the regular season.
Against Sac State, Falls recorded a career high in minutes (35), points (16) and steals (4). He dished out five assists and finished 7 of 9 from the field, including a pair of 3-pointers.
A native of Dublin, California, Falls was playing only one-and-a-half hours from his hometown in northern California against the Hornets. But his play of late has been exactly what the Griz needed as the wear and tear of the season began to set in.
“It’s been a long season and we pretty much only play seven guys a night so I think the miles are kind of catching up on us,” Falls said. “Maybe that’s why we haven’t been playing our best. But I think the Sac State game really helped us get some momentum.”
Montana coach Travis DeCuire saw starting Falls as a way to shake things up a bit as well as some different advantages.
“He’s an aggressive player. Throwing him into the starting lineup was helpful because it opened up some things for us on the backside of our options and things we run,” DeCuire said. “I think the best thing with it was it gave us balance. Now we’ve got a post (Donaven Dorsey) and a guard (Kendal Manuel) coming off the bench as opposed to two guards, which gives this team way better rhythm, including Timmy.”
It’s been an up-and-down year for Falls. The sophomore started in three of Montana’s first four games due to injuries to redshirt senior Jamar Akoh. However, he missed a pair of games after that, including Montana’s road trip to Creighton because of what he said at the time was “I just said some stuff I shouldn’t have.”
He came back and has been a regular rotation player just like his freshman year, but sometimes minutes were hard to come by. He played just three minutes when the Griz visited Northern Colorado and had a four-game stretch in February where he played no more than 15 minutes per game, including only five against Idaho State on Feb. 16 when he had three quick turnovers.
But the fourth game of that stretch was against Southern Utah and things seemed to click for Falls. In just 12 minutes, Falls scored seven points and played sound defense on SUU’s guards.
In the last three games, Falls has played 24, 25 and 35 minutes. His passing and defense are his strengths, but in the last four games he’s averaged 10 points per contest after averaging 3.8 before that.
“Especially against Sac State, I was looking to drive. And a lot of teams, because I haven’t been scoring, they kind of lean off of me a little bit,” Falls said. “Sac State did that a lot so I took advantage of that.”
Added DeCuire, “He’s always been (a spark) for us since December of his freshman year, and that’s important. One of our better defenders, instinct players and obviously one of our more emotional players and that’s the spark you need. And right now, he’s got the freshest legs of the guys so it’s important to have him on the floor right now.”
Falls saw something similar last year. After minutes fluctuated in the early portion of his college career, he broke out against UC Irvine and became a staple in Montana’s lineup as the Griz went on to the NCAA Tournament.
“I think just having my confidence up and having coach be able to trust me, and I think these past couple of games he’s been able to trust me with the ball and what I do when I go in the game,” Falls said. “I think I just have to keep that mentality to help us win.”
He added, “It was a struggle not playing as many minutes as I wanted but I think just keeping a good attitude and just always being ready when my name’s called is essential for me.”
A big part of that is the hustle chart. DeCuire and his coaches use a literal chart that gives players points for stats as well as little things like taking charges, getting loose balls or deflecting passes. When it comes to defense and hustle plays, Falls frequently tops the chart, which has allowed him to continue to earn minutes.
“Especially when I wasn’t getting the time I wanted, I knew I needed to have a good attitude and produce on the hustle chart to get some minutes,” Falls said. “It’s definitely helped me.”
Now with every game a win-or-go-home scenario, Falls is beginning to peak at the right time.
“He’s always been a confident player. Just sometimes you have to sit tight and wait for your opportunity and sometimes opportunities pass and you have to wait for another one," DeCuire said. "This was an example of waiting for another one and he took advantage of it.”