By ERIC TABER
The Montana men’s basketball team will play in the Big Sky Conference championship game for the second-straight year after enacting revenge on a previous loss to the Idaho Vandals, and taking an 81-72 victory in the tournament semifinal.
The No. 2 Grizzlies now move on to face the No. 1 Weber State Wildcats for the second time this season, with a trip to the NCAA tournament on the line. Weber State beat North Dakota 83-78 in the other semifinal game of the day, needing overtime to advance to the championship game.
Montana (21-10, 14-4 BSC) returns to the Big Sky championship game for the seventeenth time in program history, where it will meet Wildcats for the seventh time in the chipper.
The Big Sky title game is set to tip at 5:45 p.m. PT (6:45 MT) on Saturday, March 12. The game will be broadcast live on ESPNU, and available to stream live at watchespn.com.
The Grizzlies shot a season-high 65.1 percent from the field on 28-43 shooting in Friday’s defeat of the Vandals. An already strong statistic was made stronger by a phenomenal 71.4 percent shooting in the second half, when the Griz made 15 of the 21 shots they attempted.
With that sharp-shooting effort, the Griz poured in 81 points on Idaho, who entered the game with the Big Sky’s best scoring defense, allowing opponents to score an average of just 66 points per game.
One again it was Montana’s defense that proved to be the difference maker. After the Grizzlies jumped out to a 34-26 lead in the first half, Idaho decided they wouldn’t go quietly, closing UM’s lead to just two points with 11:45 left to play.
The Griz then clamped down the defense, and before the half was over, built their biggest lead of the game at 12 points with two minutes to go.
“We’ve weathered the storm a few times this year, and the games that we’ve lost, we didn’t, and I think we’ve matured from those losses,” said Montana head coach Travis DeCuire.
“We did a good job of fighting and just stuck to the script in terms of game plan. We made a couple mistakes here and there that we paid for, and that kept us active, but our aggression carried over on both sides of the ball.”
Montana finished the game with four players scoring in double figures, led by Martin Breunig with 22 points, and followed closely by Walter Wright who posted 20 points and six assists. It’s the sixteenth time Breunig has posted 20-plus points is a game this season.
Also scoring in double figures were Montana’s fab freshman duo Michael Oguine and Bobby Moorehead, who scored 13 points each.
Moorehead was a perfect 5-5 from the field, including 3-3 from behind the three-point line, sinking shots when the Griz needed them most.
“We’re going to start calling him big shot Bob because he makes them at all the right times,” joked DeCuire.
Breunig has now scored 584 points this season, making it the sixth-best single season in Montana history. In his illustrious two-year career, the senior forward from Germany has now posted 1,118 points, moving him into No. 19 on the UM all-time scoring list.
After starting the game slowly and allowing the Vandals to build an early 13-8 lead, Montana cemented the pole position for the rest of the game by going on a 19-3 run in the final 10 minutes of the opening half, putting UM up by eight at the break.
Montana’s 19-3 run was highlighted by a string of three consecutive treys – one from Wright, then two in a row from Moorehead – all while UM’s defense was forcing a Vandal scoring drought of more than seven minutes.
The Grizzlies were clinical in the second half, shooting 71 percent in the period. While Idaho mounted a comeback, it was once again Moorehead and Wright who dropped two clutch three-pointers in a row to put a halt to Idaho’s run, and extend UM’s lead from two points to eight in a span of about 30 seconds.
With those two three-point daggers in the heart, the Grizzlies would continue to build on the lead, and closed out the game with the 81-72 victory.
The win sets up a perfect storm of Big Sky championships in a Griz/Wildcat final. The preseason No. 1 and No. 2 picks will face off for the title as predicted, with the victor advancing to the big dance.
Montana and Weber State have only played each other once this season, with the Wildcats taking a 60-54 win in Ogden.
“I wouldn’t want it any other way,” said Coach DeCuire.
“Randy Rahe is probably the best coach in the conference. His team is playing well, they have the player of the year. We’ve got two post players that are looking to play at the next level and will be playing against one another, which I think will be exciting for our conference and our fans. We’re looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be a dogfight and it will be even more physical than tonight.”
The last time the two met in the Big Sky championship game was back in 2012-13 when the Griz defeated Weber 67-64 in Missoula to advance to the NCAA tourney.