Come sunrise Monday morning, the last time the San Jose State Spartans men’s basketball team won against a Division I opponent was on February 18, 2014 over Nevada. That changed by around a quarter after 9 p.m., when San Jose State held off a determined Montana Grizzlies team for a 64-61 win at Walt McPherson Court. What are some of the most important storylines in this team’s much-needed win?
San Jose State dominated the boards. SJSU out-rebounded Montana 46-29; most rebounds by both teams were on defense. However, some Spartan rebounds turned into points in a tight game where every point mattered. For instance, Gary Williams, Jr. scored on a putback off his own miss to put SJSU up 51-48 with 7:58 remaining. This was one of several pivotal instances that prevented Montana from taking even a one-point lead at all in the second half. Good rebounding helped SJSU exploit missed free throws and field goals by Montana; in fact, the aforementioned Williams score came after Ryan Welage rebounded from a missed Montana free throw.
The Spartans won despite a -8 turnover margin. For a young team, mistakes were bound to happen, especially unforced turnovers like Brandon Clarke throwing away a defensive rebound with 7:27 to go, after a great defensive stop by SJSU that nearly forced a Montana shot clock violation. This happened as players were on the floor going after the ball, and SJSU players were trying to call a time-out. The Spartans learned from that mistake, as Frank Rogers secured his steal with 6:56 to go in a similar situation. Montana panicked after SJSU blocked a shot as the shot clock went inside 10 seconds remaining.
This was not just a win, but a win over a quality team. Montana returned four starters from last year’s team that went 20-13, finished first in the Big Sky Conference, and made the NIT. The Big Sky media poll also picked Montana to finish in first place. It would not have even been imaginable for SJSU to be competitive against teams of Montana’s caliber, earlier in Dave Wojcik’s tenure. There was one exception that proved that rule on January 3, 2015, when a Spartan team with a depleted, seven-man roster (following injuries and dismissals) had an eight-point lead at halftime before losing 64-59 to Wyoming, who would go on to win the MWC Tournament and thus an NCAA Tournament auto-bid in addition to having a first-round pick in the NBA draft. Monday’s win shows that SJSU has learned to take a lead and own it.
And the game ball goes to… Ryan Welage. The freshman forward came off the bench for his second consecutive double-double in his young college career, with 10 points and 10 rebounds. Welage came through in crucial points as Montana chipped away at what was once a double-digit deficit. He blocked a shot to preserve a 51-48 lead and followed that with an assist to Brandon Clarke to put Sparta up 53-48. In the Spartans’ final possession, Welage made a gutsy, long pass to senior teammate Princeton Onwas, who would slam-dunk the ball to put SJSU up 64-61 with 10 seconds left.