Big Sky men's basketball tournament

DÉJÀ VU – Griz dispatch of Weber in postseason once again

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BOISE, Idaho — Global pandemic, hosted or neutral site tournament, rebuilding reigning champions…regardless of circumstances, the more things change, the more they stay the same the Big Sky Conference men’s basketball tournament. 

At least when it comes to Montana’s continued dominance of Weber State. 

The University of Montana men’s basketball team entered this year’s post season with a below .500 Big Sky mark and a No. 6 seed. After gutting out a win against one-win Idaho, the Grizzlies found themselves faced off against a familiar opponent. 

Weber State 15th-year Weber State head coach Randy Rahe overhauled his roster in the off-season, bringing in eight transfers, including five that started as WSU raced to the No. 3 seed in this week’s tournament. 

The narrative of the decade continued at Idaho Central Arena despite the fact that only Montana’s Mack Anderson and Weber State’s Michal Kozak have played in this tournament before. 

Montana went toe to toe with Weber State in the first half before exerting its will in the second half. And like the ending has played out almost exclusively over the last 10 years, the Grizzlies sent the Wildcats home. 

Montana head coach Travis DeCuire coaching vs. Weber State/by Brooks Nuanez

The Grizzlies pushed the lead to as many as 16 points with six minutes to go. Then the inexperienced Griz held on for a pivotal 80-75 win over Weber State in the Big Sky Tournament quarterfinals. 

“It never feels any better unless it’s on Saturday,” Montana seventh-year head coach Travis DeCuire sad. “The thing is that these guys stuck together. That’s what programs do, that’s what winning teams do. These guys have figured out what it feels like to be in it for one another. For me to sit back and experience it and see it.”

The win marks the seventh time in the last eighth years and the eighth time since 2010 that Montana has ended Weber State’s season at the Big Sky Tournament. 

“We have very similar systems and sometimes, our strengths are our weaknesses and our weaknesses are our strengths. You become very familiar with one another,” DeCuire said. “We are both part of the same coaching tree and I have a lot of respect for what Randy (Rahe) has done. There’s a reason he’s the all-time winningiest coach in the Big Sky. 

But our guys get up for this game. When we recruit them, it’s a big part of the conversation. You have two teams that are in a banner race. We are going to do everything we can to stay where we are in that race. When guys hit the floor against Weber State, it’s something they are thinking about since the day we started recruited them.”

Montana employs a lineup with no seniors and just Anderson and Cam Parker as juniors who get significant playing time. Wednesday, sophomore guard Josh Vazquez scored a career-high 21 points to lead UM past Idaho and into the quarterfinals. 

Montana guard Robby Beasley III (5) drives baseline vs. Weber State/by Brooks Nuanez

Thursday, Anderson set the tone in the first half and freshman Robby Beasley III carried the Grizzlies down the stretch as the Griz moved into the semifinals for the fifth time in seven seasons under DeCuire’s guidance. 

“Defense wins,” DeCuire reiterated as he has all season. “We have been defending well for long stretches throughout the year and statistically, we are a good defensive team but we have had stretches where we have loss of concentration and it’s cost us some games. And that’s what youth is. We are a very inexperienced group. 

“Tonight, I thought we plowed through adversity and continued to focus on the details…When you put it together on both sides of the floor, you are going to win. My guys did that tonight.”

Weber State, a team that split with the Griz on the way to a 12-3 finish in conference play, had a three-point lead four minutes into the game and last led 34-32 with a minute left in the first half. 

Derrick Carter-Hollinger, last season’s Big Sky Freshman of the Year who has battled injuries throughout his second season, got a bucket just before halftime to tie it. And by the time Anderson converted his last bucket with eight minutes to go, UM led 58-47, the largest lead of the game to that point. 

Beasley hit his third 3-pointer with 6:46 left to push the lead to 14 points and Vazquez converted a reverse layup on the following possession to put UM up 65-49 with 6:04 left, giving Montana its largest lead. 

Beasley, who scored 23 points, hit yet another triple with 2:49 left to give the Griz a 72-59 lead. Then Webe State started to chip away. 

Montana forward Mack Anderson (23) blocks Weber State guard Seikou Sisoho Jawara (5) shot to end the game

Isaiah Brown, Zahir Porter and Seikou Sisoho Jawara combined to hit four 3-pointers in the final two minutes, including the second one during the push from Sisoho Jawara with 17 seconds left to cut the UM lead to 76-75. 

Jawara’s game-tying 3-point attempt with 11 seconds left was blocked by Anderson, leading to two Vazquez free throws that came a few seconds after a pair of Vazquez free throws as Montana moved to 15-13 this season. 

“It’s a great feeling to win here, especially,” Anderson said. “We didn’t get to play last year so every one of these is even more special.”

“We have a very slow starting program,” DeCuire said. “We have a team that has peaked in March every year. Usually late February, we kind of go for it and this year in February, we weren’t in position to go for it. It was a continued growth for this conference tournament.

“We are just now figuring out what we are capable of and it just happens to be late in the year. But at the end of the day, it’s about our culture of sticking together and right now, that’s the guys who are performing for us.”

Anderson, the only in-state product on the Griz roster, set the tone early, scoring 14 of his 16 points before halftime while he dueled with Weber big man Cody Carlson, who scored 16 of his 18 in the first half. 

Beasley scored 15 of his 23 in the second half. Parker scored all 10 of his points and Kyle Owens scored all seven of his points after halftime. The Griz converted 17-of-26 shots after halftime and shot 61.5 percent overall. 

“We wanted to keep the pedal on the medal,” Beasley said. “We came out poised and took it to them.”

Jawara scored 18 points, as did Carlson in the loss. Yet Weber State continues to search for answers when it comes to playing Montana in the post-season. 

Montana guard Cameron Parker (11) finishes at the rim vs. Weber State/by Brooks Nuanez

“Proud of our guys, thought they had one helluva regular season for nine guys having to come together and they did it,” Rahe said. “They trusted each other and got to this point. Tonight was a tough night. 

“I don’t know why they are so tough to beat. They have a good basketball team and they have a good program. And they do a good job. I have a lot of respect for Montana. We’ve had good teams, we’ve had good teams. They have a good program. They have a good team.”

The Grizzlies now turn their attention to a semifinal matchup with Eastern Washington. The second-seeded Eagles survived an upset bid from No. 10 Northern Arizona, instead posting a 66-60 win. 

Montana and EWU have played in the last two Big Sky Tournament championship games. Last season, UM swept Eastern despite the fact that the Eagles won the outright Big Sky regular-season championship. This season, EWU pounded Montana twice, winning 90-76 in Cheney and Missoula for the sweep. 

Now, two of the premier programs in the league clash with a championship game bid on the line. 

“We gotta recover, get in those ice baths, get rested and then get ready to play again,” Beasley said. 

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.

Montana forward Mack Anderson (23) finishes at the rim vs. Weber State/by Brooks Nuanez
Montana guard Josh Vazquez (3) enters the ball into the post vs. Weber State/by Brooks Nuanez
Weber State forward Zahir Porter (0) shoots a three point shot vs. Montana/by Brooks Nuanez
Montana forward Josh Bannan (13) shoots a hook shot vs. Weber State/by Brooks Nuanez
Weber State head coach Randy Rahe/by Brooks Nuanez
Montana guard Cameron Parker (11) looks to create vs. Weber State/by Brooks Nuanez
Weber State forward Cody Carlson (34) defended by Montana forward Kyle Owens (0)/by Brooks Nuanez
Montana guard Brandon Whitney (12) drives vs. Weber State/by Brooks Nuanez
Montana guard Robby Beasley III (5) celebrates vs. Weber State/by Brooks Nuanez

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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