BOISE — Montana is going back to the Big Dance.
The Grizzlies punched their NCAA Tournament ticket Saturday, rallying past Eastern Washington in the Big Sky Conference men’s basketball championship, 68-62, at Century Link Arena.
After a slow start that saw the Grizzlies fall down by as many as 12 points, Montana closed within five — 31-26 — at halftime and controlled the second half to win their second consecutive title and 12th overall in program history.
“I kind of had my head down, I’m not going to lie, just because I felt like myself and my teammates want it so bad, we were kind of in a bad spot,” said Griz guard Ahmaad Rorie. “I feel like we have a group of guys that believe as long as we play harder than everybody in the conference, then we’re the best team, that’s what our coaches always say. It’s not just that we’re more talented. We knew that when the next half started that we just had to come out and play harder than them, and I feel like we started to do that, got some momentum, and then we started feeding off the crowd, so it ended up working out for us.”
Eastern got out to a quick start, leading by as many as 12 twice in the first half to quiet a pro-Montana crowd. The second 12-point advantage came with 6:28 to go in the half and the score 26-14. Sayeed Pridgett scored in the lane, and Donaven Dorsey hit back-to-back 3-pointers to help Montana carry some momentum into the halftime locker room.
Rorie was held scoreless in the first 20 minutes, but the eventual tournament MVP came alive in the second, scoring 11 points. His pull-up jumper with 11:04 remaining gave the Grizzlies their first lead at 47-46, igniting the throng of Griz faithful.
PHOTOS: MONTANA GRIZZLIES WIN BIG SKY CONFERENCE MEN’S BASKETBALL CHAMPIONSHIP
The Eagles retook the lead moments later, but Dorsey sank another 3 to give the advantage back to UM. The Grizzlies would lead the rest of the way.
“Donaven Dorsey, a week ago I pulled him out of the starting lineup. … And he made the most of that and came out the next game and played incredible defense, and what do you know? ‘Big Shot Bob’ championship night,” Montana coach Travis DeCuire said.
Dorsey was removed from the starting lineup prior to UM’s final game of the regular season, but he was a big factor off the bench in this game. He brought defensive energy and hit all four of his 3-point attempts, adding four rebounds, two blocks, a steal and an assist in the win.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling to help my team in any way I can possible, whether that’s on the bench, whether that’s in the game making shots or getting rebounds or playing defense. It’s just an unbelievable feeling,” Dorsey said.
Dorsey wasn’t the only one who came up big, though. Bobby Moorehead had two pivotal plays in the second half, too: a block to set up Rorie’s go-ahead bucket with 11:04 to go and a big 3 with 2:00 left to extend Montana’s lead to seven. Eastern Washington wouldn’t get closer than four points the rest of the way.
Pridgett led the Grizzlies with 18 points, and Michael Oguine and Dorsey each had 12. Rorie had 11 points, and Moorehead added nine.
Eastern Washington got 17 points from Jesse Hunt and 14 from Kim Aiken, 12 of which came in the first half. Mason Peatling added 13 points and Tyler Kidd had 12, but the Eagles scored only 31 points in each half. In the second half, the Griz held EWU to a 39.4 percent shooting effort. The Griz, meanwhile, were 17 of 28 in the second to secure the win.
Montana (26-8) will now head back to the NCAA Tournament. The Grizzlies will learn their seed and first-round opponent on Sunday.
“That’s really the goal, especially as a team. Before the season starts, we set goals. One of our biggest goals is to win championships. That’s just what we came out and did,” Dorsey said. “All the grind in, all the hard summers and springs and falls, everything that comes with the grind, this is what it’s all for. This is the best feeling in the world to be able to go to the NCAA Tournament.”