RENO, Nev. – One of the best seasons in program history was about to come to an end much too soon.
Montana trailed Northern Colorado by six points with less than a minute left in the Big Sky Conference men’s basketball tournament semifinals, and the Bears had the ball. The Grizzlies had found a way to win 24 games, but surely there was no way they could win this time.
Sometimes miracles do happen.
Thanks to clutch plays by Montana, and a few gifts from Northern Colorado, the Griz came back to force overtime, and then beat the Bears 91-89 on Friday.
“We never really doubted anything too much,” said senior forward Fabijan Krslovic. “Obviously it looked really bad at times. You know, down six with a minute to go. We just do what we do. And the belief that these guys showed was just unbelievable. I was overwhelmed with just pride.”
The miraculous comeback started with a bucket inside by Jamar Akoh. After a timeout, UNC’s Jonah Radebaugh committed an offensive foul with 57 seconds left. Then Radebaugh fouled Michael Oguine two seconds later. Oguine made the first, but missed the second free throw. Northern Colorado took its time after the rebound, and with no pressure from the Grizzlies, was called for a 10-second violation in the backcourt.
Suddenly the Griz had the ball down by three. Ahmaad Rorie took a 3 in the corner, but missed. Bobby Moorehead fought for the offensive rebound, dribbled out to the arc, and buried a shot to tie the game. In total, the Griz scored six points 23 seconds, and the Bears committed two turnovers.
Northern Colorado still had a chance to win with a final possession. Andre Spight missed a 3-point attempt, but Tanner Morgan was fouled by Krslovic on the rebound with 1.9 seconds left. The 70 percent free throw shooter needed to make one only shot for the No. 5 seed to finish off the upset over the top-seeded Grizzlies.
He missed both.
With new life in overtime, Montana continued to punish the Bears inside. Four straight points by Oguine gave the Griz a lead. Sayeed Pridgett added two more baskets on strong moves to the hoop. But after a deep 3-pointer by Jordan Davis with eight seconds left, the UM lead was only one.
UNC fouled Rorie, who made one of two at the free throw line, giving the Bears a chance to win at the buzzer. But Spight’s running shot bounced off the rim, and Montana celebrated its most improbable and most important win of the season.
“You kind of feel like it’s over, but no, not until the clock runs out,” said head coach Travis DeCuire. “These guys stuck together, but what was most remarkable to me about this game was that it wasn’t one or two guys that made it happen. They all kind of took turns. And it’s contagious: the charges, the blocks, the sharing. This is the funnest team I’ve ever coached.”
The box score shows the contributions of every Grizzly. Oguine scored 19 points and had nine rebounds. Rorie scored 17. Akoh and Krslovic each scored 16 points, most coming around the rim. Pridgett chipped in 12, and drew a huge charge on Spight right after his second straight basket in overtime. Moorehead gave the Griz seven, and the biggest 3 of the night.
The finish will stick with everyone who spent the night in the Reno Events Center for a long time, but the entire 45 minutes had fans raising out of their seats.
Northern Colorado shot 58 percent in the game, and seven of 11 from the 3-point line. The Grizzlies, in contrast, made only Moorehead’s season-saving shot from beyond the arc, but attacked inside relentlessly, scoring 56 points in the paint.
The second half was a clinic of offensive efficiency. Montana made 10 straight shots in the middle of the second half, almost all coming on post-up plays right at the rim. But the Grizzlies could barely cut into a Northern Colorado lead, because the Bears made 10 of 13 shots in a 10-minute stretch. That included a pair of shots by Spight so deep in the corner they had to clear the corner of the backboard before swishing through the net.
UNC’s Davis provided the highlight of the night, and maybe the year. In a tie game with 2:08 left, the 6-foot-2 guard drove into the lane and threw down an enormous one-handed dunk right on top of the 6-8 Krslovic. The slam became a viral clip shared by national sports media before the game had even finished less than half an hour later. The play also gave UNC a brief spurt of momentum, and started a 6-0 run that gave Northern Colorado its seemingly safe lead with one-minute left.
— Big Sky MBB (@BigSkyMBB) March 10, 2018
Spight led Northern Colorado (22-12) with 22 points. Davis scored 18. Jalen Sanders added 16, many coming on mid-range floaters in the first half.
A slow-start by the Montana offense allowed Northern Colorado to build a 31-22 lead, but the Griz finished the half on a 15-6 run to tie the game at 37 at the break.
Montana now moves into the Big Sky championship game, where it will meet third-seeded Eastern Washington. The Eagles beat surprising No. 10-seed Southern Utah 82-70 in the second semifinal.
Eastern Washington won the only meeting between the two this year, 74-65 in Cheney on Feb. 15. That result snapped the Grizzlies’ 13-game winning streak to start conference play.
The championship game will tipoff at 6 p.m. Mountain Time on Saturday.