By ERIC TABER
The No. 2 seed Montana Grizzlies battled back from a 14-point first half deficit, but missed a chance in the dying seconds to knock off No. 1 Weber State, as the Wildcats laid claim to the Big Sky Conference tournament championship in a 62-59 nail biter.
With the win, WSU takes the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, and the Grizzlies finish the season at 21-11. The win also snaps Montana’s three-game win streak against Weber State in the Big Sky Championship game, dating back to 2010.
With 56 seconds to play and the Grizzlies trailing 59-60, Weber guard Jeremy Senglin was called for a charge, giving Montana the ball and an opportunity to take the lead. But a missed UM three-point attempt on the ensuing possession gave the ball back to the Wildcats with just over five seconds on the clock. WSUs Dusty Baker then slipped an assignment and received the ensuing in-bounds pass at the rim for the easy bucket.
With the Wildcats up by three and only seconds to play, Walter Wright heaved an off-balance three to tie the game as the clock expired, but it wouldn’t fall and the Grizzlies’ furious comeback would fall flat.
“They were very well prepared tonight for our defense,” said Montana head coach Travis DeCuire. “We had some opportunities, but didn’t seize the moment.”
“We did everything we needed to put us in a position to win the game. If you had asked me going into this if I’d take the ball down one with 20 seconds, I’d say yeah. I think we can get a shot, and a shot we can make. I just didn’t happen for us tonight.”
The Grizzlies received a player of the game-worthy effort from their lone senior, Martin Breunig, who was tied for a game-high 20 points.
The marquee matchup of Breunig facing Big Sky MVP Joel Bolomboy was one of the hottest topics of conversation coming into the game, and it didn’t disappoint.
Breunig won the “battle of the bigs”, outscoring Weber’s senior forward 20-4, with Bolomboy rendered largely ineffective by a staunch Grizzly post defense that included Breunig and an impressive performance form Fabijan Krslovic.
“Incredible. They did a good job of scrapping around,” said coach DeCuire of his forward duo. “Those two had to work hard because they had to trap on the ball screens, sprint from 30-40 feet out to the rim, and fight the touch, and probably rotate to a double. To hold him (Bolomboy) to 1-6, Braxton to 3-3, and only three attempts, was huge.
“I think the biggest stat in terms of what our bigs did was to hold them to four offensive rebounds. They’re one of the best rebounding teams in the country, especially Bolomboy.”
Montana’s only other scorer to post double figures was Wright, who himself had a night to remember, putting up 18 points and leading the Griz with six rebounds and four assists.
Weber State started the game white-hot, making over 70 percent of their shots in the first 10 minutes, while going 4-8 from three-point land. After Breunig drained a rare three-pointer, Senglin and Ryan Richardson took over, draining five threes between them.
The hot start from Weber eventually ballooned to a 14-point lead with nearly eight minutes remaining in the first half, and it looked as though the Griz were down and out.
Montana then mounted a furious comeback, sparked by the Grizzly defense, who forced four-straight turnovers in the span of a minute.
The defensive pressure put the Grizzlies’ tails up, and resulted in a 10-0 run, punctuated by a thunderous dunk from Breunig that closed the WSU lead to just three points.
What looked like a runaway Weber State victory, was all of a sudden a dog fight, and the 10 point stretch for the Griz put the momentum squarely on their side of the court heading into the halftime break, trailing 41-38.
Halftime adjustments from both coaches tightened the defenses, and both teams went long spells with little to no scoring with only 41 points scored between the two in the second period.
The Grizzlies collected their first lead of the game at 42-41 just a minute after the break on a Breunig layup. The Wildcats would take the lead for good however on a dunk from Ryan Richardson that came from a Grizzly turnover, and the Montana offense remained one step behind WSU until the final seconds when Wright’s shot fell off course.
“Like I told this team, we had some guys give everything they had tonight. Couldn’t ask for more. I think we competed in a very prideful manner, and all respect goes to our opponent this evening,” added DeCuire.
Martin Breunig finished his career as the No. 17 most prolific scorer in Montana history with 1,138 points. He also becomes the highest scoring two-year player in Montana history, passing Anthony Johnson’s career mark of 1,124. His 2015-16 season points total is now at 604, making his the sixth-best single season in Montana history.