JoJo Anderson launched up an arching alley-oop pass to Lenell Henry for a slam.
Brooks DeBisschop snapped a scoring drought with a tough basket under the rim, finessing his shot through the hoop.
Yet every time the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks, losers of their Big Sky Conference opener Thursday night, had a momentum-building play on offense, they struggled to get a stop on the other end against the speedy, scrappy Montana Grizzlies.
The Lumberjacks allowed 27 points off turnovers, shot 16 of 49 from the field and struggled to keep pace with the Grizzlies in the Walkup Skydome on the way to an 87-69 loss.
"If you are not converting around the rim, it's going to be hard, especially when you are giving them turnovers that lead to baskets on their end," said Lumberjacks head coach Jack Murphy.
JoJo Anderson recorded a game-high 31 points for the Lumberjacks, hitting 17 of 19 free throws before finishing his night with more makes at the line than his team took shots. The sophomore set a new career-high in scoring with the effort, but the lack of offense around him kept Northern Arizona trailing the entire game after starting Thursday facing a 7-0 hole.
Anderson, who has now started the last 10 games, became just the third Northern Arizona player in program history to register 17 free throws made, a number that trails only Jason Word's 22 from the 1993-94 season. He also became the second player ever to attempt 19.
Also doing damage at the line, Montana's Jamar Akoh led his team in points with 23, going 13 for 18 from the stripe. With 1:55 to play before halftime, Akoh finished a fast break with a dunk from a no-look, backhanded pass from Timmy Falls that made it a 40-21 game in favor of Montana, which scored 21 transition points to Northern Arizona's three, had the 13-5 advantage on second-chance points and won the battle inside 38-12.
"It's stuff we focused on in practice; we knew it would be key to the game today. I mean, they had 20 offensive rebounds against Washington, so they are a big, physical team and they showed it again tonight," Murphy said.
Montana, winner of three of its last five games and coming off a 66-63 loss to Washington, ended the night with four players in double digits in scoring, with the only double-double of the game going to Akoh, who added 10 rebounds to his stat line. Meanwhile, Northern Arizona's highest scorer behind Anderson was Torry Johnson and his 6-for-7 performance at the charity stripe. Carlos Hines added seven, Henry contributed six, and DeBisschop, Corey Brown and Gino Littles left the Skydome with five apiece.
With his team trailing by as much as 19 in the first half, Anderson sparked a 9-2 Lumberjacks surge with a pair of free throws followed by a 3-pointer, and Northern Arizona went into the break down 42-30. Anderson went 4 for 7 from beyond the arc, where both teams finished 7 for 17.
Montana stretched the lead to 18 out of the halftime gates, going ahead 48-30 before DeBisschop, Northern Arizona's leader on the boards with seven, drained a 3 off an assist from Anderson. But as was the case most of the night, the Griz responded on the next trip down the court, hitting from long distance to quiet the crowd and any Lumberjacks momentum.
"Brooks and Isaiah (Thomas) I thought showed great effort at times, but they just need to finish plays," Murphy said.
Thomas had a game-high five blocks in the contest.
The Lumberjacks, who have lost four of their last five, close out a two-game homestand when they face offensive force Montana State on Saturday for a 5 p.m. tipoff.
"We had this game circled for a long time, understand how important it was, and it's disappointing we got the loss, but we also know its just the first of 18," Murphy said.