MarchMadnessPreview01_Nuanez

Griz guard Sayeed Pridgett drives the ball past Eastern Washington University defender Cody Benzel during the Big Sky Conference Championship game in Reno, Nevada, on March 10, 2018. The Griz will play the University of Michigan in Wichita, Kansas, on Thursday, March 15, in the first round of NCAA March Madness.

After Montana beat Northern Colorado in the semifinal of the Big Sky basketball tournament, a game it had no right to win, head coach Travis DeCuire said it takes luck to win a conference championship.

The Griz, a team notorious in the conference for big second halves, came out of the locker room tied with Northern Colorado but fell behind and trailed for much of the second half. Andre Spight, Northern Colorado’s leading scorer, made every shot he threw at the basket. Jordan Davis dunked Fabijan Krslovic into oblivion. The Bears couldn’t miss, and Montana’s dream season was crumbling.

Northern Colorado led by six with a minute left, poised to upset Montana after doing the same to Weber State the day before. The small contingent of Griz fans who made the journey to The Biggest Little City in the World would have to travel back to Montana empty handed. I don’t really believe in destiny, but I knew this wasn’t how this team, the one that went undefeated at home and won 16 conference games, would leave the court for the final time. 

It wasn’t luck that won Montana the game, although DeCuire is right when he says that is important. It was experience. It was the will by each player to not let his teammates down.

Jamar Akoh made a layup to cut the lead to four. Then Northern Colorado committed an offensive foul. It wasn’t luck that forced the turnover, but perfect positioning by Timmy Falls. Michael Oguine made a free throw. Spight, a redshirt senior, took 10 seconds to cross half court and turned it over again.

Ahmaad Rorie’s three to tie it bounced off, but Bobby Moorehead battled for the long rebound and brought it in. He stepped back, found space and knocked down a three, tying the game with 25 seconds left.

The Griz took their biggest lead of the game in the overtime period and advanced to the championship. The magic didn’t end there.

Eastern Washington led Montana by 11 at halftime of the championship, poised to upset Montana just as it did in the 2014 championship game in Missoula. But this Griz team, the best we’ve seen since the Will Cherry and Kareem Jamar days, wouldn’t be denied. The Griz hung 53 on the Eagles in the second half and won the Big Sky title, securing a berth in the NCAA tourney for the first time since 2013.

Now, the Griz will play Michigan in the first round of the NCAA tournament. They won’t be the favorites. They won’t have talent or athleticism on their side. But they will have luck, and they will have each other. And they will have one of the best coaches in the tournament. So far, that has been enough. Don’t be surprised to see Montana as a popular upset pick for countless national basketball experts. The Griz earned that right.