Montana head coach Wayne Tinkle planned a speech in case his team lost. He didn’t need to use it.
No. 1 Montana beat No. 2 Weber State 67-64 to win its second straight Big Sky Conference Championship and third title in the past four years. The Grizzlies also clinched the conference’s automatic bid for the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive season on Saturday night in front of 7,172 screaming Dahlberg Arena fans.
“I was going to talk about if things didn’t go our way, that this season was still a success—an unbelievable success,” said Tinkle, whose team will make its 10th NCAA appearance. “When you look at how far this team has come, everything they’ve dealt with and how they just deflected it and how they continued to find ways to finish, this one is unbelievable.”
The 2013 championship game was close throughout, with no team gaining a double-digit lead. With seven seconds on the shot clock and just over a minute to go in the game, junior guard Kareem Jamar faked a drive to the basket and dished the ball to senior Will Cherry, who nailed the three, which sealed Montana’s win with 57 seconds left to play.
“I know where this man is at on the court at all times,” said Jamar, who led all scorers with 20 points, five rebounds and five assists for the Grizzlies. “I knew he was going to knock it down. To see him hit that shot and what he’s been through (this season) - that’s my big brother - I’m just so happy for him that he hit that shot.”
Cherry finished the game with 18 points, three rebounds and three assists during his final game in Dahlberg Arena, a win that made him a three-time conference champion for his career.
“This one is definitely sweeter knowing the adversity I had to go through this whole year,” said Cherry, who broke his foot a month prior to the start of the season.
Weber State jumped out to an early 4-0 lead with quick scores on a hook shot from senior center Kyle Tresnak and a tip-in from junior transfer Davion Berry. The Wildcats’ defense forced some errant Montana passes, but a 3-pointer from Griz forward Spencer Coleman gave the Grizzlies a 12-9 lead with 15:28 left in the first half.
Montana forward Mike Weisner extended the Grizzlies lead to nine when he pump faked then nailed a straightaway 3 to make it 25-16 with 9:02 left in the first half.
The Wildcats bounced back fast behind senior Scott Bamforth’s 3-pointer and free throw after being fouled by Griz sophomore Jordan Gregory. Less than a minute later, Weber State freshman Joel Bolomboy connected on an and-one opportunity, cutting the Griz lead to 29-27 with 4:47 left to play. Both teams headed into the locker rooms for halftime, tied at 34.
A 3-pointer by Gregory gave Montana the early lead in the second half, but Weber State took the lead after a baby hook from senior Frank Otis gave the Wildcats a 39-37 lead with 18:07 to play. Montana grabbed the lead for good at 7:57, using a 8-0 run on three baskets from Cherry and one from Jamar.
“Like I said yesterday, to be the best you have to beat the best,” Cherry said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. This game went down to the wire. We’re the two top teams in the conference, when we beat them it just makes it that much sweeter.”
Cherry, Jamar and sophomore guard Jordan Gregory were selected to the All-Conference Tournament team for the Grizzlies. Jamar, the 2012 BSC Tournament Most Valuable Player and 2013 BSC regular season Most Valuable Player, was named tournament MVP again.
“I’m not even thinking about MVP,” said Jamar, one of three other BSC players to receive back-to-back conference tournament MVP awards. “MVP is nice, but it’s just going to collect dust. To do it with these guys, that’s what’s special.”
Weber State held a 13-game win streak heading into tonight’s contest and won the previous meeting with Montana 87-63 on Feb. 14. The Wildcats haven’t won a championship game against Montana since 1995.
Montana will find out its seed in the NCAA Tournament during tomorrow’s “Selection Sunday.” In the 2012 tournament, the Grizzlies were given the No. 14 seed and lost to the No. 3 seed Wisconsin 73-49.
Tinkle said this year’s team won’t drop its guard after winning the championship and heading into the NCAA Tournament.
“This year our guys will be more focused and more prepared no matter who we draw tomorrow afternoon,” he said.