MISSOULA — The Montana Grizzlies (20-5, 13-0) weren’t the only Big Sky Conference team that showed their mettle to survive a second-half or overtime scare this past weekend.
Weber State (17-7, 10-2) needed to force overtime and Idaho (17-7, 9-3) had to endure a hectic final minute of regulation to remain comfortably in second and third place. The fourth-place team, Eastern Washington, is two games behind Idaho at 7-5 in conference play.
The Wildcats overcame a 14-point first-half deficit to force overtime. They outscored Northern Colorado 42-32 in the second half after a low-scoring first half that saw them trail 29-19.
They closed regulation on a 6-1 run after they trailed by five points with 30 seconds left. Tied in overtime with 1:30 remaining, Weber State scored six of the final seven points to win 71-66.
Junior forward/center Zach Braxton tallied a career-high 25 points and tied his career best with 13 rebounds to go with three blocks. Sophomore guard Jerrick Harding added 23 points, and junior forward Brekkott Chapman chipped in a game-high five blocks.
“I feel like this is the biggest test we’ve had all year,” Harding told the Standard-Examiner. “With this win, I feel like (we’ve) grown a lot as a team; being resilient through all of the adversity that we went through tonight.”
A Northern Colorado win would’ve kept the Bears in more serious contention for a top-three seed in the tournament. It could’ve also given Weber State some hesitation about getting a top-two seed and maybe even a bye in the tournament with a tough schedule remaining.
However, the Wildcats’ win allowed them to remain in second place with a one-game lead over the Vandals, who they play for the first time Feb. 24 at home. They also host Eastern Washington and travel to Portland State, Sacramento State, Montana and Montana State.
Over in Idaho, the Vandals fell down 64-63 after Eastern Washington’s Cody Benzel hit a 3-pointer with 43 seconds remaining. In the back-and-forth contest, Idaho senior Brayon Blake answered with a layup on the next possession to reclaim the lead.
With 13 seconds left, Sir Washington had a chance to help the Eagles retake the lead, but he missed both free throws. Idaho’s Victor Sanders then split a pair of free throws to put Idaho up 66-64, and Blake blocked Bogdan Bliznyuk on a layup attempt with six seconds remaining.
Eastern Washington intentionally fouled with one second left, Idaho’s Perrion Callandret missed the front end of a 1-and-1, but the Eagles’ full-court shot was no good.
Junior forward Nate Sherwood paced Idaho with 23 points, his most at the Division I level.
“What a game,” Vandals coach Don Verlin said in the postgame news conference. “Twenty lead changes. I thought both teams were very well prepared.”
If the Eagles had beaten Idaho, both teams would be sitting in a third-place tie with identical 8-4 conference records. Instead, the Vandals are two games clear of Eastern Washington, own a head-to-head tiebreaker by sweeping the series and are in position to earn a first-round bye.
The Vandals seemingly have the easiest remaining schedule between them, Weber State and Montana. They host Montana State, Montana, Northern Arizona and Southern Utah, and travel to Idaho State and Weber State.
Player of the week: Weber State forward/center Zach Braxton
Braxton averaged 23.5 points and 10 rebounds in a pair of Weber State home wins over North Dakota and Northern Colorado. He shot 61.3 percent (19 of 31) from the field and totaled four blocks and two steals.
He scored 22 points and grabbed seven boards on Thursday to help the Wildcats avenge an earlier loss to North Dakota, beating the Fighting Hawks 84-76.
Braxton won the weekly honor for the first time in his career. He’s the first Weber State player to earn the award this season.
Griz guard Mike Oguine was one of six other nominees for the award. He averaged 19.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, two assists, one steal and 0.5 blocks in Montana’s wins over Portland State and Sacramento State. He shot 46.2 percent (6 of 13) from beyond the arc.
Montana continues to climb the Mid-Major Top 25 Poll
The Griz moved up two spots to No. 12 in the latest CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major Top 25 Poll, released Monday afternoon. The Griz received 409 votes. Their ranking and vote total are both season highs.
They’re one spot behind UC Santa Barbara, which they lost to, 83-70, at a neutral location on Nov. 21. They’re six spots ahead of Georgia State, their only other mid-major loss — a 71-68 defeat on the road after they trailed by 17 points at the half.
Montana is the lone Big Sky team in this week’s poll. Idaho and Weber State also received votes.
The Griz made their debut in the poll at No. 24 on Jan. 15. They moved up to No. 21 on Jan. 22, No. 16 on Jan. 29 and No. 14 on Feb. 5.
Game of the week: Montana at Idaho, 8 p.m. Saturday
The Grizzlies will face their biggest conference test to date when they travel to Moscow, Idaho, for a showdown with the Vandals, third in the league standings. A win would guarantee the Griz a top-two seed in the conference tournament, regardless of their result Thursday.
Idaho, which is one game behind Weber State for second place, has won seven of its past eight games and is 7-3 at home. The Vandals’ only conference losses have come by four and 17 points to Northern Colorado, and by one point against Portland State on a buzzer-beating tip-in.
The veteran Vandals start four seniors and one junior. They had used the same starting five for the first 21 games before they decided to bring senior Callandret off the bench three games ago to add scoring in that department.
The Griz will travel to Eastern Washington (7-1 at home) Thursday before heading to Idaho. They’ll try to become the first Big Sky team to sweep the road trip this year. When the Griz swept it last season, they were the first Montana team since 1994 to do so, and the first conference team since Idaho rejoined the league in 2014.