RENO, Nevada — With less than a minute to play, the top seed in the Big Sky men’s tournament looked like they would be the latest to endure heartbreak in Reno.
Top-seeded Montana trailed by six points with 57 seconds to play to No. 5 Northern Colorado, a tenacious bunch who entered the tournament with a chip on their collective shoulders before putting together the two most dominant performances of the neutral site tournament this week.
Jamar Akoh’s tip-in cut the UNC lead to four points and Montana head coach Travis DeCuire burned his final time out. The Grizzlies would need a miracle to survive.
But it’s impossible to measure the heart of a champion.
In one of the wildest closing sequences in the history of this tournament, the league champs erased a six-point deficit with less than a minute to play in regulation then emerged from a highly competitive overtime to survive and advance with a thrilling 91-89 win over Northern Colorado on Friday night.
“Since December, we have continued to say compete with desperation and we have continued to compete with a sense of urgency for a long time and that’s how you go 16-2 in conference play,” DeCuire, the Big Sky Coach of the Year this season, said. “What we said today was ‘stay together.’”
“We knew they would make plays and we knew we couldn’t quit…It’s not over until the clock runs out. This is the most fun team I’ve ever coached.”
The Grizzlies have forged a reputation as the toughest, most relentless team in the Big Sky Conference. Montana affirmed that notion in the Big Sky Tournament semifinals on Friday night.
Pesky UM freshman Timmy Falls drew a foul on Northern Colorado stopper Jonah Radebaugh to give the Griz life. Michael Oguine cut the lead to three, drawing Radebaugh’s fifth and final foul in the process. Only 1.5 seconds had elapse and UM had cut a six-point lead in half.
Northern Colorado star senior Andre Spight was called for a 10-second violation, leading to an inbounds play for a game-tying look for All-Big Sky point guard Ahmaad Rorie. Montana’s first-team all-league leader had his triple from the corner rimmed out but Bobby Moorehead skied to get the offensive rebound.
The streaky shooting Montana junior dribbled the ball beyond the arc and cast a step-back that was pure, tying the game at 80 with 19 seconds left.
“I don’t know who was in the corner but they were yelling for the ball so I was thinking about passing it to them but then I was just like, ‘forget it, I’m going to put it up,” Moorehead said. “It happened to go in. Something needed to happen and I threw it up.”
Northern Colorado head coach Jeff Linder called his final timeout to set up a play for Spight, the Big Sky’s Newcomer of the Year after transferring from Arizona and the league’s leading scorer during conference play. With Rorie shadowing him, Spight shot the potential game-winner with 1.5 seconds left but it went in and out.
Tanner Morgan, a fifth-year senior who sat out last season with Northern Colorado ineligible for the postseason, soared the get the rebound. His put-back attempt missed but drew the fifth and final foul on Montana’s lone senior Fabijan Krslovic.
The 69-percent free percent free throw shooter stepped to the line as the sizeable number of Montana supporters in the stands at the Reno Events Center roared. Morgan missed both free throws, forcing overtime.
“We never quit,” Krslovic said after finishing 16 points. “We knew we needed to be quick about things but we never doubted anything. We do what we do and the belief that these guys showed, I was overwhelmed with pride. How much everyone pulled together at the end was unbelievable to me.”
In the overtime period, Oguine hit two free throws to give the Griz the lead 24 seconds in — he finished with a team-high 19 as UM put five scorers in double figures — and the Griz would not trail again.
Sophomore Sayeed Pridgett “brought us home”, in the words of DeCuire, socring two clutch buckets in the final three minutes to keep it a two-possession game.
Davis shaved the lead to 89-86 with 47 seconds left before Pridgett, who finished with 12 points, missed a layup in the lane. Moorehead grabbed his second crucial offensive rebound and was fouled by Morgan, his fifth. Moorehead made the first but missed the second.
Davis hit a 3-pointer with eight seconds left and all of a sudden, the Bears were within one, 90-89. Spight fouled Rorie and a player that shot 93.4 percent from the charity stripe in league play missed his third free of the night, leaving the door open one more time.
Spight dribbled the length of the court and shot a runner from the top of the key with Oguine draped all over him. The game-winning attempt hit the back of the rim and fell to the floor, just like Spight. The first-team All-Big Sky selection collapsed in emotion on the court after battling illness all week and still scoring a team-high 22 points.
“It was just a matter of them getting some stops and they got that offensive foul call, a couple of turnovers and that’s what hurt us,” Spight said. “My end look was all right, it wasn’t too bad. I thought it was going in. It just hit the backboard. I thought it was going in but it didn’t. It’s tough. This is my last college game. That’s tough to swallow.”
A season ago, the Bears did not come to Reno because of a self-mandated postseason ban because of violations committed by former head coach B.J. Hill. Linder decided to redshirt Morgan and Anthony Johnson while Spight sat out after transferring from Arizona State.
With those three adding to a lineup that already includes Davis, an All-Big Sky point guard, along with Radebaugh, last season’s Big Sky Defensive MVP, and star freshman Jalen Sanders, the Bears had designs on a special season.
Behind Spight’s explosive scoring — he scored more than 30 points six times in the last month and more than 40 twice —Davis’ explosive athleticism and Radebaugh’s all of a sudden lethal shooting, the Bears posted their third 20-win season as a Division I member.
“Two years ago when we took over, most people wouldn’t have believed we’d be in the position we are in when we took this over,” Linder said. “To have a chance to beat the top seed in the league, to have the opportunity to give yourself a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament, I’m proud of that.”
The Bears gave the top seed all they could handle, building a lead that grew to as many as nine points in the first half. Spight hit a turnaround fadeaway that seemed to scrape the ceiling with Jamar Akoh’s out-stretched hand in his face during a portion of the game where the two teams combined to make 16 of 17 shots.
That would prove to be Spight’s last field goal. Oguine anwered to give Montana the lead again in a contest where the lead changed 15 times, part of a streak that saw Montana make 11 straight shots.
Northern Colorado seemed to finally separate when Davis threw down a dunk that will surely be on SportsCenter, hammering a tomahawk on Krslovic’s face. That dunk sparked a 6-0 run to give the Bears the 80-74 lead before Montana pulled out its miracle.
“It came down to stop, score, stop and that’s been our mentality all year,” Davis said. “We didn’t get enough stops coming down to the end. Our score was Dre’s last shot. There’s been countless times in practice and games he’s hit that. Today, we came up just short.”
The Griz will face the winner of third-seeded Eastern Washington and No. 10 Southern Utah, a pair of potential opponents that had opposite results during the regular season. Two of Montana’s better league performances in beating SUU by 30 and 24 points. UM’s first Big Sky loss after 13 straight league wins came at EWU 74-65 on February 15.
Montana is in search of its first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2013.
“We’ve earned our spot in this championship game and that last six minutes shows why we deserve this so much,” Krslovic said. “Now we have to finish it.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.