Right now, Montana might face a bit of an uphill battle playing without two of its best players. But the Grizzlies survived their first test Saturday.
The Griz, sans injured seniors Will Cherry and Mathias Ward, got strong performances from their supporting cast to beat rival Montana State 71-68 at Worthington Arena in Bozeman and complete the season sweep of the Bobcats.
Cherry and Ward are both out with foot injuries, and coach Wayne Tinkle has said he is unsure when either might return to the lineup — if at all. Regardless, Saturday’s win allowed UM to keep its half-game lead over Weber State at the top of the Big Sky Conference standings entering Monday. The Grizzlies extended it to a full game with an 86-74 overtime win against Southern Utah on Monday.
Going into the final week of the regular season, Montana and Weber State are two of three teams — the other is North Dakota — to have clinched a berth to the league’s seven-team postseason tournament. But a lot is left to be decided.
Per the scenarios laid out by the league office in Ogden, Utah, Montana can finish no lower than in first or second place in the standings.
The Grizzlies (21-6, 17-1) look to host the league tournament for the second consecutive season, and due to the new seven-team format, there is only one first-round bye given this season.
Meanwhile, the Bobcats (11-16, 8-10) can finish no higher than fourth place, but still could miss the tournament altogether. MSU has lost seven of its last nine games, but does have a quality victory over Weber State, which could help the Cats if their fate comes down to a tiebreaker.
Like UM, Weber State (22-5, 16-2) can only finish in either first or second place. The Grizzlies and Wildcats split two regular-season meetings. If they finish the season tied in the standings, the tiebreaker will be ruled by the teams’ respective records against opponents in descending order.
Northern Colorado, Southern Utah, Northern Arizona, Sacramento State and Eastern Washington are also still alive for the final four bids to the postseason tournament.
Only two teams have been eliminated from postseason contention — Portland State and Idaho State.
The Big Sky tournament will be held March 14-16 at the campus of the regular-season champion.
Tight at the top
The Big Sky women are also in the final week of the regular season, and five teams — Montana, Northern Colorado, Idaho State, Eastern Washington and Sacramento State — have clinched bids to the league tourney.
The Lady Griz (21-6, 15-3 Big Sky) have a half-game lead over UNC (18-10, 15-4) in the race for first place. UM can clinch the regular-season title with victories in road games this week against NAU and Sac State.
Northern Colorado has just one game remaining, a matchup with Southern Utah on Thursday. To win the regular-season crown, the Bears need help.
After its 56-48 win against Southern Utah on Monday, Montana State (16-11, 10-8) still hadn’t clinched a berth in the tournament, but were on the verge. The Bobcats, who at one point this season were at the top of the conference standings, had lost seven of their last eight games.
The women’s postseason tournament will be held March 14-16, also at the site of the regular-season champion.
20 times 4
Montana’s victory over Montana State on Saturday pushed the Grizzlies to the 20-win plateau for the fourth consecutive season.
Only one other time in program history had the Griz reached 20 wins in four straight seasons (1982-86). UM has won at least 20 games 17 times since the Big Sky Conference was founded in 1963.
It’s been a great run of success under seventh-year Montana coach Wayne Tinkle, who, entering Monday’s game, had a career record of 136-77 and an 82-31 mark in the league.
A significant career record fell last week when Sacramento State’s Kylie Kuhns broke the women’s Big Sky mark for rebounding.
Kuhns had 20 rebounds in a 63-57 victory over Weber State last Thursday to establish the new record. The 6-foot senior now has 1,185 career rebounds, which eclipse the previous mark of 1,174 set by Idaho State’s Natalie Doma in 2008.
Kuhns is just the fifth player in Big Sky history to record more than 1,000 career rebounds.
Around the league
North Dakota G Troy Huff was named the Big Sky men’s player of the week Monday. Huff averaged 26 points, 4 rebounds and 3 steals in two UND victories last week. It was the team’s first-ever road sweep as a member of the Big Sky Conference. … Northern Colorado G D’shara Strange took home the women’s player of the week award. Strange averaged 24.5 points, 6 rebounds and 3 steals last week as the Bears won twice and kept pace with the Lady Griz atop the standings. … On the dubious side, Weber State’s women last week set the all-time league record for consecutive losses at 45. The Wildcats haven’t won since an 85-72 victory over Cal State Bakersfield on Dec. 10, 2011.