The game-changing — and perhaps season-defining — moment in the Grizzlies’ road 78-74 win against Weber State last Thursday may have come when nobody was watching.
Before the game, in the Dee Events Center's visiting locker room, members of the Montana men’s basketball team spoke candidly with one another. Montana was coming off a deflating loss against Montana State five days earlier where a halftime lead slipped away quickly in the final 20 minutes and the Griz struggled to match the Cats’ intensity.
“We had a big talk before the (Weber) game, a heart to heart with each other and we just kind of figured things out and (talked about) fighting to the end,” senior guard Walter Wright said after a Monday practice in Reno, Nevada.
That talk proved to be prophetic.
Montana trailed Weber State by 10 with 6:59 remaining. The season didn’t necessarily hang in the balance, but a first-round bye at the Big Sky Conference tournament, starting Tuesday, certainly did.
Montana needed to win both in Ogden, Utah and beat foundering Idaho State on the road Saturday to close the season. More importantly, the Griz needed a spark to help with the team’s psyche.
They got it.
The Griz went on a 15-3 run to the 3:02 mark to give them a lead they wouldn’t relinquish and a triumph that reaffirmed their pregame discussion.
Montana carried its momentum from the win — its first at Weber since an historic playoff win in 2010 — into another victory at Idaho State and the Big Sky’s No. 5 seed, meaning a first-round bye.
Montana coach Travis DeCuire said after the game that his team seemed as close as ever.
“Definitely a lot of hugs, screams, music playing up big. We were just happy we got that win,” Wright said of the post-game pomp in the locker room. “Not only was that a start for something good — we got a win after that — but it was just a great feeling in the locker room just understanding that even if we’re down 10 we can still come back.
“We can do anything.”
They say winning cures all ills — and Montana had a few this year, particularly an uncharacteristic four-game conference losing skid in January. It was the first the maroon and silver fans had seen in over a decade.
But for the Griz (11-7 in BSC, 16-15 overall), it's how they won their last two that has them poised for a deep run in Reno.
“Sometimes you gotta get beat up to learn how to fight and that’s what happened to us,” DeCuire said Sunday before his team’s flight to Reno. “In a couple games (this year) some teams wanted it more than us and they walked away with it and we had to come to a conclusion that it was important to us.
“...We’ve played a lot more aggressively on both sides of the ball, the tempo has been helpful, but the biggest thing is it took some times for guys to settle into roles. Now we’re pretty comfortable with where we are and who we are and no we’re just trying to achieve this common goal.”
That goal — a Big Sky Conference championship — has slipped through Montana’s fingers the last two years. Twice the Griz have been to the title game and twice an NCAA tournament berth has been taken from them in single-digit losses.
Their quest to correct that start’s Thursday against No. 4 Idaho (12-6, 17-12). The Griz split the season series against the Vandals, an overtime loss coming in the latter matchup and as the capper in the aforementioned four-game stretch of defeat.
The Griz need to contain Idaho’s Victor Sanders, a first-team Big Sky Conference player who had 28 points in the overtime win on Jan. 28.
Including Idaho, the Griz have actually split with three of the four teams seeded directly ahead of them. Montana beat regular-season champ North Dakota in the teams’ lone meeting Jan. 14.
Meaning the tournament in Reno will be — fittingly — a crapshoot.
Teams to watch
Sacramento State (9-9, 12-17) is an intriguing matchup if the Hornets can escape the first round against Idaho State. Sac just beat North Dakota 57-53 on Thursday.
Northern Arizona (6-12, 9-22) is coming off a win against Eastern Washington, Big Sky’s No. 2 seed, on Saturday, and the Lumberjacks have the best 3-point defense and rebounding offense in the Big Sky.
You also can’t count out Montana State, which missed a first-round bye with its loss to Weber on Saturday. Before the finale, the Cats had won five in a row. Griz fans also know Big Sky first-team all-conference selection Tyler Hall looms large on a balanced roster.
The favorites, though, are certainly among the Top 5 teams. North Dakota is second in both scoring offense and defense, making it first in the Big Sky in scoring margin. Quinton Hooker, the conference’s best free-throw shooter, earned his second straight first-team selection.
Eastern Washington (13-5, 21-10) boasts the conference MVP in Jacob Wiley, who leads the league in rebounding and blocked shots.
No 3. Weber State, the defending champ, is the league’s best shooting team, fueled by first-teamer Jeremy Senglin. The Wildcats (12-6, 17-12) led the conference standings until a brutal four-game losing streak from Feb. 18 to March 2 dropped Weber.