Big Sky Conference

Griz earn No. 14 seed, draw Big Ten champion Michigan

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MISSOULA — Montana thought it might head to the site of next season’s Big Sky Tournament a year early after surging to the tournament title over the weekend.

Instead, the Grizzlies are headed to Wichita to face the Big Ten Tournament champions.

The Griz survived three potential knockout blows in three days in Reno, instead rallying for victories over North Dakota, Northern Colorado in overtime and Eastern Washington in the tournament championship game Saturday night in Reno to punch their ticket to the Big Dance. On Sunday at the Press Box in Missoula, Montana found out their NCAA Tournament draw.

The Big Sky regular-season and tournament champions received a No. 14 seed and will face third-seeded Michigan. The Wolverines earned the Big Ten’s automatic bid by winning four games in four days, including a tournament semifinal win over No. 2 Michigan State and a 75-66 win over No. 8 Purdue in the Big Ten championship game. Michigan (28-7) enters the tournament on a nine-game winning streak.

Montana forward Jamar Akoh (15) drives baseline on Eastern Washington forward Mason Peatling (14)/by Brooks Nuanez

“It’s really hard to describe the feeling,” UM junior guard Michael Oguine, the Big Sky Tournament MVP, said of seeing Montana flash on the screen during the nationally-televised tournament selection show. “It’s an unbelievable feeling. Everyone dreams of doing this. To be here is a great feeling but we know there’s still work to be done. We don’t want to be a team that just showed up and wasn’t ready to play. We want to make sure we are prepared to give our best against Michigan.”

Montana and Michigan will play in the Los Angeles West Regional with the first round game scheduled for 7:50 p.m. MST Thursday from Wichita, Kansas. The winner will play the winner of sixth-seeded Houston and 11th-seeded San Diego State on Saturday.

“I was hoping for a 13,” UM head coach Travis DeCuire said. “I knew we wouldn’t be a 12 but I was hoping for a 13. We let a few games slip away. That probably played a role in that. If we could win at Stanford or at Washington, we’d have a better chance at a 12. But you take what you can get.”

There was a chance the Griz would earn a No. 13 seed and get to play against regional rival Gonzaga in Boise, the site of next year’s Big Sky Tournament. Instead, Montana will play one of the hottest teams in the country.

“It was the last bracket to be revealed and we thought we were going to be a 13 or a 14 seed so we were really anticipating a matchup against Gonzaga in Boise but when we saw Michigan flash up as a 3-seed, we were pretty sure we were going to be that 14,” UM senior Fabijan Krslovic said. “There’s a lot of excitement. We know what we are doing and now we have to get ready.”

“The guys were looking forward to that,” DeCuire added when the potential Gonzaga matchup was mentioned. “We played there a couple of years ago and we got on the bus thinking we should’ve won that game so if we got another opportunity to get another crack at them, they’d be in the NCAA Tournament. It looked like that was the way it was going with a site being in Boise but we are looking forward to playing Michigan.”

The West was the fourth and final regional revealed on the selection show. The bracket unveiling began at 4 p.m. and the Griz did not learn their draw for another hour, waiting in anticipation while still basking in the glow of Saturday’s 82-65 victory over EWU.

“The emotion is waiting and assuming so being last toward the end of the page, there’s that build up,” DeCuire said. “It’s kind of like watching a game. That’s the fun part of this. When you know you are in the tournament and you are waiting to see where you go. Sometimes, you have players that are wishfully thinking for certain matchups so when your name pops up and you see who it is, you get excited about it.”

Montana head coach Travis DeCuire and guard Michael Oguine (0)/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana trailed by as many as seven points before taking the lead for good with 14 minutes left of Thursday’s 84-76 win over UND, last season’s Big Sky champs. On Friday, Montana erased a six –point deficit in the final 56 seconds of regulation to force overtime, then survived the extra period for a 91-89 win over Northern Colorado.

On Saturday, UM trailed by as many as 11 points before forging an unforgettable defensive performance, getting 18 stops in 19 possessions and allowing two points in more than 11 minutes of action to race past the Eagles into the Big Dance.

“It’s unreal,” Krslovic said. “I’ve been close a couple of times. I didn’t know if it was going to happen this year. That Friday night game, I still have no idea how we won that game. We pulled that out somehow. And halftime last night, I was thinking it was going to be same old same old, fall short again. This is very exciting for my senior year. We have a very experienced group. Our starting five are all upper classmen, we all know our roles and everyone top to bottom knows what we want to do. We are very excited.”

Now the Grizzlies will take on a team that has not lost since February 6. The Wolverines are led by heralded head coach John Beilein and aNBA prospect in junior center Moritz Wagner, a 6-foot-11 . Michigan’s losses have come to LSU, No. 13 North Carolina, Ohio State, No. 5 Purdue, Nebraska, No. 3 Purdue and Northwestern. The Wolverines have beaten five ranked opponents, including sweeping Michigan State and avenging the two losses to Purdue with a win over the Boilermakers in the Big Ten championship game on March 4.

Montana guard Timmy Falls/by Brooks Nuanez

“I think it’s a huge build up for us,’” DeCuire said. “The guys are going to be excited to be in the NCAA Tournament one and to play against a Big Ten team, two. And we played through adversity the three games we came from behind, if the game doesn’t start off the way we’d like, these guys aren’t going to give up. They are going to go into this with a lot of confidence and belief and trust in each other to go out and perform. I think these guys are going to be excited to go to work.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved. 

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 12 year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to founded Skyline Sports.

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