MISSOULA — Idaho guard Mikey Dixon ripped through to his left hand from the wing and was met almost immediately by Brandon Whitney a few steps in.
Dixon was forced off balance and had to kick it out to the wing, unable to find his shot. That was essentially the entire night for the high-scoring guard.
Whitney and Montana’s defense held one of the top scorers in the Big Sky to 0-for-6 shooting in a lopsided 81-62 win on Thursday at Dahlberg Arena.
Whether because of pride, heart, grit, knowledge of his assignment or just physical skill, Whitney has evolved into one of the perennial on-ball defenders in the Big Sky Conference.
For Whitney, it's pride and heart in taking the top defensive assignment each night.
“Honestly, it’s just heart,” he said. “If you got the heart to guard, then you can guard anybody I believe. I think I have the heart, and that’s just what I believe. … I do take pride in my defense. I’ve always took pride in my defense ever since I was little; it just carried on with me.”
Montana improved to 14-6 overall and 7-2 in Big Sky play while Idaho dropped to 5-15, 2-8. For the second game in a row, the Griz held a top-flight conference scorer to well below his season average — they limited Northern Arizona's Jalen Cone to 12 points on 4-of-12 shooting on Saturday.
As impressive as the performance against Cone was, the defensive clinic put on against Dixon might have been better.
From Whitney stuffing drives with quick recoveries, sniffing out pull-up jumpers and contesting, to Derrick Carter-Hollinger and Mack Anderson backing him up in the lane with help-side blocks, Dixon couldn’t find much of anything. On the other end, he struggled to stay out of foul trouble as he played only 21 minutes and sat out for about eight minutes in the second half after picking up his fourth foul about midway through the half.
“I think it’s what’s in his heart,” Griz head coach Travis DeCuire said. “You can teach guys to play D. You can give them the fundamentals. You can talk about it. You can give into the scheme, but if it’s not in their heart, if it’s not something that they take pride in, it’s not going to happen. I think that he takes it personal, and that’s what really separates him from most guys.”
Idaho kept things within striking distance in the first half off a hot-shooting Trevante Anderson, who went for 22 points, with 14 in the first half while Dixon struggled with foul trouble. Montana then turned a 35-29 lead at halftime into a 42-31 lead off a surge by Josh Bannan.
The lead ballooned from there with Montana scoring in transition off turnovers while the Vandals’ offense sputtered without Dixon. The Griz led by as much as 25 late in the half.
Safe to say Scott Blakney was happy to face his old team.
Blakney went for eight points on 4-of-6 shooting as he played in his third game since returning from a wrist injury that sidelined him for five games. Blakney played at Idaho for four seasons under two head coaches, former Vandals coach Don Verlin and current coach Zac Claus.
He transferred to Montana as a fifth-year senior last spring and has provided a solid interior presence.
"It was a lot of fun," he said of playing his former team. "I talked to the guys before the game and during a little bit. There is a little bit of competitiveness in there. So, it was a lot of fun to see the guys."
Climbing the ladder
The win Thursday propelled DeCuire past Mike Montgomery on the all-time wins list for third in program history. At 156 wins, DeCuire is two games away from tying Wayne Tinkle (158) for second all-time.
“It just means that I’m a part of something special,” DeCuire, who was wearing white Nike sneakers with his staff for Coaches versus Cancer week, said. “I’ve got a great staff. We’ve had great players. … Five years with Blaine Taylor, six years with Mike Montgomery, some really good things rubbed off.”
Notes: Montana is 10-0 at home, good for the best start since 2017-18, when the Griz went 14-0 and made the NCAA Tournament. Montana has won 12 in a row at home dating back to last season, which is the longest such streak since the Griz took 20 in a row from Feb. 18, 2017, through Jan. 3, 2019. … Four Montana players scored in double figures, led by Bannan (18), Cam Parker (15), Robby Beasley III (13) and Whitney (11). Lonnell Martin Jr. (9) and Blakney (8) were just off scoring in double digits.