They’re going dancing ….. again!
“They” are The University of Montana Grizzlies who defeated the Weber State Wildcats 67-64 in the Big Sky Conference Tournament championship game Saturday evening in front of a raucous home Dahlberg Arena crowd of 7,172.
With the win Montana (25-6) earned the league’s automatic berth into the NCAA playoffs – its 10th in school history and its second in a row. Last season the Griz also won the regular-season title and earned the right to host the post-season tourney, and beat the Wildcats in the title game.
It was Montana’s ninth Big Sky tourney championship, and its fifth in the last nine seasons. The Griz also added to their school record with their 93rd victory in the past four seasons. Montana has won 21 of its last 23 games, and has 30 straight home victories over Big Sky teams.
Junior guard-forward Kareem Jamar was named the tourney MVP, becoming just the fourth player in Big Sky history to win the award back-to-back. Senior point guard Will Cherry was also named to the all-tournament team, along with UM sophomore guard Jordan Gregory.
The victory also placed seventh-year Griz head coach Wayne Tinkle into the record books, as he became the first mentor in school history to take Montana to the NCAA tournament three times. He also tied UM’s record for 25 wins in a season, something his 2011-12 team accomplished a year ago.
“It’s believable – it’s fairy tale stuff,” Tinkle said. “But when I snap myself back, it’s not a surprise because of the folks we’ve recruited to be here, their character, their makeup and what they stand for. We shove down their throat the pride and tradition that is Grizzly basketball.”
Compared to last year’s 85-66 Montana win in the championship tilt, this year’s tourney title game was a nail-bitter, with featured seven lead changes and six ties.
WSU (26-6), which was riding a 13-game winning streak, stayed with-in just a shot away from taking the lead several times in the final minutes of the see-saw, emotional contest.
One of the biggest shots of the game was by Cherry, who nailed a 3-pointer with 43 seconds to go to put the Griz up by five (62-57) points. But, WSU answered with a offensive rebound and lay-up by senior forward Frank Otis, cutting UM’s lead to 62-59 with 20 seconds left.
The sharp-shooting Gregory gave Montana another five-point (64-59) cushion with 22 seconds remaining, converting a pair of pressure-filled free throws. The Wildcats cut the Grizzlies’ lead to just two points one last time at 64-62, on a deep 3-pointer by sophomore guard Gelaun Wheelwright.
Cherry was fouled on UM’s next possession and made a pair of clutch free throws to make it a two-possession game at 66-62, and the Griz had the win.
“He’s not 100 percent, physically, conditioning-wise,” Tinkle said about his star point guard Cherry. “He got those fouls and he reminds me of one of my own children sometimes when I tell him no when pull him out of the game sometimes. It was just a decision we had to make. Second half, he didn’t want to come out when he got his third but we said, ‘Hey, come out just for a few minutes. We are going to get you back in. It was one of those ‘roll the dice.’ You’re talking about a senior, our most experienced player. He knew to play smart.”
“Nobody gave us a chance,” Cherry said. “Everybody thought Weber State was going to come in here and win it all. I just kind of felt like that was a little bit disrespectful. Nobody gave us a chance. We were the No. 1 team all year. It felt like everybody threw that out the window. The players on this team were resilient.”
The first half was a mirror of the second, as the score was tied four times and there were three ties. The Wildcats had to overcome a nine-point (29-20) first-half deficit, and rallied to deadlock the contest at 34-34 at intermission.
Jamar, recently named the Big Sky’s regular-season MVP, made 9-of-13 shots and finished with a game-high 20 points. Cherry scored 18 points – and 15 of those came in the second half. Gregory added 12 points, and made 3-of-4 treys and 3-of-4 free throws.
UM sophomore forward Mike Weisner added 7 points and made a pair of 3-pointers. True freshman center Andy Martin had a team-high 6 rebounds for the Griz. Jamar added 5 rebounds and 5 assists, while Cherry contributed 3 assists and 3 steals.
Jamar now has 1,103 career points, moving him up to 18th in school history, as he passes Ed Argenbright, who scored 1,100 points from 1954-56. Cherry boosted his career total to 1,482 points, and he trails Coach Tinkle, who scored 1,500 points from 1986-89, for sixth on UM’s all-time list, but only 18 points.
The Wildcats had three players with 12 points each – senior guard Scott Bamforth, junior forward Davion Berry, and freshman forward Joel Bolomboy, while Wheelwright chipped in 11 points. Bolomboy had a game-high 9 rebounds, and WSU had a 33-25 advantage on the boards.
The rest of the all-tourney team consisted of Bolomboy, Berry, and junior guard-forward Troy Huff of North Dakota.
The Grizzlies will find out Sunday afternoon (4-4:30 p.m.), March 17, who their first-round NCAA opponent will be when it is announced on ESPN.
“Last year I thought we dropped our guard a little bit after we won the championship,” Tinkle said. “We didn’t keep that edge. We didn’t keep our focus. It wasn’t like we set ourselves up for failure, but it’s like we reached our ultimate goal and this year I promise you — I’m not going to promise any wins or losses or any of that — but our guys will be more focused and more prepared no matter who we draw tomorrow afternoon.”
— UM Sports Information