Big Sky men's basketball tournament

Lower seeds have consistently disrupted throughout history of Big Sky Tourney

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As the drought continues, the dry spell for the Big Sky Conference in the NCAA Tournament helps the memory of the league’s last triumph become more mythical by the year.

In 2006, one of the Big Sky’s all-time greatest players led his alma mater to a win in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Head coach Larry Krystkowiak’s Montana Grizzlies defeated Nevada 87-79 in the first round of the tournament 14 years ago. The Big Sky has won 17 games in the Big Dance in its history, but the current drought is the longest in the nation among 32 Division I men’s basketball conferences.

As time passes, the legend of those Grizzlies grows. With the Big Sky Tournament in Boise, Idaho fast approaching, it’s easy to forget that those Griz did not win the Big Sky’s regular-season championship.

And it’s also a reminder that winning the regular-season in a one-bid league like the Big Sky is no guarantee that team is going dancing. Wild things happen at the Big Sky Tournament, particularly the bracket carnage that has taken place in the early rounds since the league moved the tournament to a neutral site four years ago.

The top seed has won the previous four men’s tournaments. But the No. 2 seed has gotten knocked out of the championship every season but one. On the women’s side, two No. 1 seeds, a No. 3 and a No. 4 have advanced to the NCAA Tournament with teams that finished in the bottom half of the regular-season standings wrecking the bracket annually.

Over the last four years, the Southern Utah men, the Idaho State women, and several other teams have proven the notion that playing your best basketball is the most important factor for success in the postseason.

Getting hot at the right time is essential and also provides thrills for those that follow the league. The last men’s team to win a game and add to March Madness is a prime example of exactly that.

Former Montana forward Jordan Hasquet (2) in 2006/courtesy of Big Sky Conference

During his playing days between 1983 and 1986, Krystkowiak was the only three-time MVP in league history. He led UM to consecutive NCAA Tournament in his two seasons as the head coach of his alma mater. The Griz did not win the regular-season title or host the league tournament either year. Yet Krystkowiak figured out how to get his team to peak at the right time, winning the tournament on Portland State’s home floor in 2005 and on Northern Arizona’s home floor in 2006.

“To win that tournament and to be a great team, you have to win close games,” former Montana forward Jordan Hasquet, a sophomore on the 2006 Griz, said in February. “Eastern Washington almost had us (the Griz won 71-70 in overtime) and they had one of the greatest Big Sky players of all time in Rodney Stuckey. They gave us a scare but then we went on to beat NAU on their home court.

“The way Coach K had us prepare mentally, it was just different. Both years, we flipped this switch and I don’t know quite how we did it, but it was like, ‘Now we go. Nothing before this matters. Let’s win this tournament.”

Those two tournaments resembled the Big Sky Tournaments that played out when Krystkowiak was a player at Montana. The Grizzlies, coached by College Basketball Hall of Famer Mike Montgomery from 1978 until 1986, did not advanced to the NCAA Tournament in the 1980s despite Krystkowiak’s prolific production. The future NBA player is the only player in the history of the conference to score 2,000 points and grab 1,000 rebounds.

But during his playing career, Krystkowiak Grizzlies always fell short. In 1983, UM lost by one point to Weber State in the semifinals; the Wildcats went on to upset host Nevada in the championship. In 1984, Krystkowiak and Montgomery’s Grizzlies lost 71-69 to Nevada in a championship game hosted on Weber State’s home floor.

In 1985, the Griz lost to host Boise State in the first round. The Broncos lost to eventual tournament champion Nevada in the semifinals before the Wolfpack beat Idaho State in the championship. And in 1986, Krystkowiak suffered perhaps the most heartbreaking loss of his college career, falling 82-77 to rival Montana State in a game played at the Lawlor Events Center at UNR.

So when Krystkowiak led Montana to the 2005 tournament title by beating Weber State 63-61 on Portland State’s home floor, he felt vindication. And leading UM to a Big Sky Tournament championship game win over Northern Arizona in Flagstaff to set the stage for the 2006 NCAA Tournament win ranks among the current University of Utah head coach’s top memories.

Former Montana guard Kevin Criswell (12) in 2006/courtesy of Big Sky Conference

“We probably didn’t have as talented a team as when I played, but when you catch the break… that to me was a little bit of a payback,” Krystkowiak said. “I didn’t win a championship as a player at Montana but to be able to win as a coach was every bit as cool.”

Montana used the momentum of winning in a hostile environment along with the

Previous season’s NCAA Tournament experience ((in 2005, the No. 16 seed Griz lost 88-77 to No. 1 Washington) to enter the 2006 national tournament with confidence. A 24-win season that included home victories over Stanford and Wisconsin-Milwaukee also helped the 2006 Griz earn the No. 12 seed and draw No. 5 Nevada.

“Seeing a team like Nevada, the second we saw that, we knew we were going to win,” Hasquet said. “We were cocky walking around with a chip on our shoulder, not showboating or anything but we had a swagger going into that game where we absolutely thought we were going to win. There wasn’t a doubt about it.”

The Big Sky champion has received as high as a 13-seed (Portland State in 2009, Montana in 2012 & 2013, Eastern Washington in 2015) four times since then. But more often than not, the league’s champion has to play a college blue blood in the first round. Over the last three years, No. 15 North Dakota took on No. 2 Arizona  along with Montana taking on Michigan as a 14 and 15-seed, respectively, each of the last two seasons.

The Big Sky champion has received as high as a 13-seed (Portland State in 2009, Montana in 2012 & 2013, Eastern Washington in 2015) four times since then. But more often than not, the league’s champion has to play a college blue blood in the first round.

Over the last three years, No. 15 North Dakota took on No. 2 Arizona  along with Montana taking on Michigan as a 14 and 15-seed, respectively, each of the last two seasons. The last time a Big Sky team drew a team from a non-power conference came when Weber State took on No. 2 seed Xavier in the 2016 NCAA Tournament.

“Our team was playing great basketball at that time and we got a 12 seed,” Krystkowiak said. “As we know, there’s been a lot of 12s who can beat some 5s. We played a great game against Nevada. I will never forget the fans and thinking back to Coach Montgomery and a lot of people who were here. It was a lot bigger thing than just doing it for us.

“The history, the previous players and coaches that were at Montana…I just remember going back to my hotel and they had some bath salts and bubble bath next to the tub and it was like $25 and I was like, ‘You know what, I’m just going to pour a bath and sit here and soak it all up. I thought it might be awhile before a Big Sky team does this again. And that’s been the case.”

The Big Sky Conference hosted its first men’s basketball tournament in 1976. That year, Weber State hosted but lost to Boise State 77-70 in double overtime in the championship game, establishing what has been unpredictable results. Before the conference tournament was moved to a neutral site first in Reno, Nevada (2016-2018) and now in Boise (2019-current), the regular-season champion won the tournament about half the time.

Weber State head coach Randy Rahe (R) laughing with Montana head coach Travis DeCuire (L) before the 2019 Big Sky Conference Championship game/by Brooks Nuanez

And over the last four years between three-year stint in Reno, Nevada (2016-18) or Boise (2019-present), teams that played in the first round have busted brackets consistently.

Ironically, the top seed in the men’s tournament has earned the league’s auto-bid to the NCAA Tournament all four seasons since the tournament moved to a neutral court. The first year in Reno, regular-season champion Weber State beat No. 2 Montana 62-59 in the championship game. The last three seasons, UND (2017) and Montana (twice) defeated the No. 3 seed to advance, including the Griz beating Eastern Washington in consecutive championships.

“Obviously, it’s an advantage if you are at home playing but I’ll tell you, there’s a lot of pressure on you, too,” said Weber State head coach Randy Rahe, who has led the Wildcats to five regular-season Big Sky titles, including four that earned hosting rights. Rahe’s teams advanced to the NCAA Tournament twice after winning the league tournament in Ogden but postseason games on their home floor three different times.

“The expectations are that you should just flat win it but it’s not that easy because the other teams when they come into another court, they are loosey goosey.

“When you are on an opponent’s court or you are on a neutral court and you are playing a favored team, we just tell our kids it’s us agains the world.

“In the neutral court, everyone is on their own but regardless, going into these tournaments, a lot of it is luck. So much of it is who is healthy. I think you have to have a healthy team. Everyone says we want to be playing well going into the tournament. We try to talk our guys into the fact that they will be playing our best basketball going into the tournament. And sometimes, that works.”

Under the previous format of the tournament, only the top six seeds made the tournament with the exception of 2015, when the field expanded to eight teams. Since moving to a neutral site, every single team, men’s and women’s, have qualified.

Southern Utah guard Randy Onwuasor (0) scored 43 points in a 109-105 Thunderbird victory over Montana State last season/by Brooks Nuanez

Although there has not been a team from outside the top three regular-season finishers to make the championship game on the men’s side, a few teams have broken brackets.

No. 10 Sac State upset No. 7 Montana State in 2016.

The following March, No. 11 Southern Utah posted an epic 109-105 triple overtime win behind a tournament single-game record 43 points from Randy Onwuasor to oust No. 6 Montana State.

“We came into this game knowing we was supposed to win,” said Onwuasor, a transfer from Texas Tech who ended up leaving again, this time to finish his career at LSU. “We weren’t hoping we were going to win. We came in knowing we was supposed to win, expecting to win.”

When it matters is the key, even if no men’s team that played in the first round has been able to string together upsets all the way to the end of the week.

Southern Utah has come closest, becoming the first and only last-place team to win a postseason game in 2017 and winning two more games as the No. 10 seed in 2018, including defeating the senior laden second-seeded Idaho Vandals 92-78 in the tournament quarterfinals.

As the No. 7 seed last season, SUU outlasted Idaho State in the first round before destroying second-seeded Northern Colorado, 83-64.

“We concentrate on playing our best when this tournament rolls around and that gives us a tremendous amount of confidence,” SUU head coach Todd Simon said after the victory over UNC

SUU’s run fell short with a 77-61 loss to No. 3 Eastern Washington in which the Thunderbirds looked flat. Southern Utah’s neutral site success is a reminder of both the importance of peaking at the right time and how crucial a bye can be.

Portland State guard Ashley Bolston (0) vs Eastern Washington in the 2019 Big Sky Conference Championship game/by Brooks Nuanez

On the women’s side, hosting was almost a guarantee to go dancing.

The Big Sky hosted its first women’s basketball championship tournamentat the University of Montana in 1989. Until the move to the neutral site, legendary UM head coach Robin Selvig and his Lady Griz won the regular-season title and the right to host 16 times.

The Lady Griz went 18-0 in championship games under Selvig between 1989 and 2015, including 16-0 in championship games played in Missoula. Montana advanced to the tournament championship game four other times, posting a 2-2 record away from the Garden City. Of Selvig’s 21 trips to the NCAA Tournament, 18 came after winning the Big Sky Tournament in the first 26 years of the event.

Before moving to neutral sites, the host of the Big Sky Tournament advanced to the NCAA Tournament all but five times. Montana represented two of those five non-hosts to move on after upsetting host Boise State in 1992 and host Portland State in 2011.

In 2006, third-seeded NAU took advantage of No. 5 Weber State’s 71-70 win over No. 1 Idaho State in the semifinals in Pocatello; the Lumberjacks beat WSU 74-59 to advance to the Big Dance for the only time in school history.

The following year, the No. 4 Lumberjacks beat host Montana 64-59 in the semifinals but lost 84-78 to No. 2 Idaho State in the championship game as the Bengals advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in school history.

In 2010, Portland State beat Montana State in the championship after host Eastern Washington lost to No. 6 Montana State in the semifinals.

Since the women’s tournament moved to a neutral site, the top seed has won twice. Idaho claimed the first tournament in Reno as the No. 3 seed, using its previous neutral court tourney experience to roll through the field. Two years earlier, head coach Jon Newlee and the Vandals won their second straight WAC Tournament. UI rejoined the Big Sky the year before the postseason moved to Reno.

Former Montana State forward Peyton Ferris following MSU’s buzzer beater loss in the first round of the 2016 Big Sky Conference Tournament/by Brooks Nuanez

“We had done this before, just in a different city, so we believed we could do it again,” former Idaho center Ali Forde said after earning All-Tourney honors four years ago

The Vandals advanced by beating No. 9 seed Idaho State 67-55 in the championship game. The fact that the Bengals were even playing for the title is one of the reasons why ISU head coach Seton Sobolewski earned the nickname “The King of Reno” during the three years the tournament resided in the Biggest Little City in the World.

That 2016 Bengals’ squad won the first neutral site game in the history of the conference by outlasting Northern Colorado in the first game of the first round. In the quarterfinals, Juliet Jones drilled a half-court heave at the buzzer to lift ISU to a 52-50 upset over top-seeded Montana State, leaving the Bobcats in a puddle of tears on the court after the game left wondering if this cruel reality would’ve played out had the tournament been in Bozeman.

Idaho State did the unthinkable in the semifinals, taking apart No. 4 North Dakota to win for the third time in three days. By the championship game, the Bengals were on their fourth game in six days and their lack of energy showed.

“You hope you get to play four games in the span of a week,” Sobolewski said with a laugh. “But it’s really hard on you physically. The most important thing is to be as loose as you can be, as confident as you can be and don’t try to do anything different than you’ve been doing all year long. You try to do what you always do and do it at the highest level possible.”

ISU entered the 2017 tournament as the No. 6 seed. The Bengals beat Montana on the first day and upset No. 3 Northern Colorado 60-59 on Saylair Grandon’s last-second jump shot. In the semis, the Bengals took out No. 7 Portland State 54-50 a day after the Vikings beat No. 2 North Dakota.

For the second year in a row, Idaho State lost its legs in the championship game, falling to Montana State 62-56 as the Bobcats earned revenge and punched their first ticket to the Big Dance since 1993.

Idaho State head coach Seton Sobolewski coaching in the 2019 Big Sky Conference Tournament/by Brooks Nuanez

In 2018, the final year in Reno, Idaho State took the No. 5 seed into the tournament. ISU cruised past last-place Southern Utah in the first round before outlasting fourth-seeded Weber State 113-109 in overtime in the quarterfinals. No. 1 Northern Colorado ousted the Bengals in the semifinals.

UNC beat No. 2 Idaho in the championship, marking the only time in the four-year history of the neutral site that the seeds held.

Last season, the Bengals earned a first-round bye for the first time. The extra time off paid no dividends for Idaho State. No. 3 ISU lost 67-65 to No. 6 Eastern Washington in overtime the first game of the tournament for the Bengals.

The Eagles did their best ISU impression, winning a third game in a week to advance to the tournament championship game. EWU fell to fourth-seeded Portland State in the championship game.

“Playing early in the week puts you in that tournament mode,” Sobolewksi said. “Sometimes, I think that’s an advantage a team that played in the first round when they move into the second round to play a team that had a bye. You get into a rhythm. You know what to expect. You have played on that floor once already. You get into that mode.”

In the 40 Big Sky Tournaments between 1976 and 2015 hosted by the regular-season champion, exactly half of the host schools claimed the tournament titles.

Krystkowiak never advanced to theBig Dance as a player. Montgomery never got to the NCAA Tournament with the Griz, although he would go dancing 16 times combined between his time at Stanford (1986-2004) and Cal (2008-2014).

2006 Big Sky Conference Champion Montana Grizzlies/courtesy of Big Sky Conference

Between the first Big Sky tournament in 1976 and Idaho’s win over Eastern Washington in the tournament championship game on Boise State’s home court in 1990, a total of 10 non-hosting squads won the league tournament to advance.

All the BSC tournaments in the 1980s came with unpredictable results. Stu Starner’s 1986 Montana State Bobcats might have made the most unlikely run of them all.

That MSU squad finished the season 14-17 after starting 6-14. MSU got red-hot, particularly from beyond the arc. Before that season, the NCAA added the 3-point line to the Big Sky Conference alone as an experiment before adding it to the rest of the leagues across the country.

“We were a basketball team with a losing record who made it to the NCAA Tournament,” Starner remembered 34 years later. “That was big news. But there is a bigger story to it.”

MSU lost six of its first seven against a brutal non-conference schedule that included games at LSU, at home against Cal, at home against Nebraska and at San Diego. MSU’s first big win came at Loyola Marymount. But the team lost five of six to enter the stretch run eight games below .500.

The final four games of the season, the Bobcats turned a corner and began to shoot the lights out from beyond the arc. It came to a head in the season finale, an 88-76 win over rival Montana to deny Krystkowiak and the Grizzlies the regular-season title.

MSU upset top-seeded Nevada 81-80 in Reno in the first round of the tournament. The Bobcats beat NAU 80-74 in the semis. And in the championship, Kral Ferch hit six 3-pointers in a 29-point outing, Tony Hampton slashed all over court on his way to 28 points and tournament MVP honors and the Bobcats posted an 82-77 win over Montana despite Krystkowiak’s 30 points.

“That group changed expectations of we can do at Montana State,” Starner said. “That group put Bobcat basketball back on the map.”

Former Montana forward Andrew Strait in 2006/courtesy of Big Sky Conference

The Grizzlies broke an NCAA Tournament drought that lasted from Jud Heathcote’s final season in 1975 until 1991, when Montana became the first Big Sky team to win the tournament on their home court since Idaho did it on the way to a league-high No. 3 seed in the 1982 NCAA Tournament.

Since head coach Stew Morrill led the Griz to that breakthrough, Montana has advanced to the NCAA Tournament 11 times, nearly twice as many berths as any other team in the league over the last 29 years.

Montana won the Big Sky Tournament at Dahlberg Arena in 1991 under Morrill and the following year at home under Blaine Taylor following Morrill’s departure to Colorado State. The Griz punched their tickets to the Big Dance in Missoula in 2012 and 2013 as well. But five times (1997, 2002, 2005, 2006 and 2010) the Griz celebrated on someone else’s home court. And the last two seasons, Montana has cut down the nets on neutral courts.

Outside of Krystkowiak’s two seasons at the helm, Montana had two runs (1996, 2002) that were among the league’s most surprising. The Bobcats’ run to the Big Sky title in 1986 has only been matched one timeby another unlikely run with Cat-Griz origins.

In 2002, Don Holst was in his fourth season as the head coach at Montana. Two years earlier his team had lost to Cal State-Northridge in the semifinals of the league tournament in Missoula after winning the regular-season championship.

That season, Montana suffered a pair of 20-point losses to Montana State, who went on to win the regular-season championship, marking the last time the Bobcats hung a regular-season banner.

After an embarrassing 75-55 loss to MSU in Missoula to finish the regular season with a 13-14 record that included 7-7 mark in Big Sky play, Holst dwelled for a few days.

“I was really down in the mouth about losing to Montana State and I really wasn’t pleasant to be around,” Holst said. “I was thinking about what we were going to do because the tournament was the next week and it was at Montana State.”

“All I could think about how we were going to overcome, how I was going to get my kids up and ready to go to that tournament? We could beat every team in that tournament. I truly believed that. Did we play well against Montana State every time? No we didn’t and I couldn’t figure it out.”

2020 Big Sky Conference Champions Montana State/by Montana State Athletics

So Holst started making phone calls to fellow coaching colleagues. Eventually, he had a conversation with the son of former Detroit Pistons enforcer Bill Lambeer. The advice: take the pressure off the seniors offensively and put pressure on them defensively.

“I sat down with my seniors and I asked them what they wanted,” Holst said. “I told them this was their tournament to win but we had to sell out on this. I asked them, ‘Do I make you nervous sometime when we are running offense or if you missed a shot?’ They all raised their hands. So I said, ‘I’m going to stop doing that. This week, I’m going to take a little pressure off on the offensive end. But I’m going to be chewing your butts on the defensive end.’

“They bought in. It freed up their minds.”

Montana, the No. 6 seed, upset No. 3 Northern Arizona 82-64 to move into the semifinals. Against the host Bobcats, Griz power forward Dan Trammel made one of the most iconic plays at the buzzer in the history of the tournament.

With the score tied at 68, David Bell missed a jump shot but Trammel followed it up with a tip-in dunk at the buzzer to lift the Griz into the championship game.

“All of a sudden, they play not to lose, they miss shots and we make shots and pretty soon, it’s our game,” said Holst, who led the Griz to a 70-66 win over Eastern Washington in what became a neutral site title game. “The rest is history.”

The other unlike run came when a group of Montana natives led the Grizzlies to the Big Sky Tournament title in 1997.

Former Montana guard Ahmaad Rorie (14) celebrates during the 2018 Big Sky Conference Championship game/by Brooks Nuanez

Toward the end of the 1995-1996 season, Montana big man Matt Kempfert tore his ACL against Weber State. The Griz lost in the first round of that year’s conference tournament and then watched as Montana State defeated Weber State to advance to the NCAA Tournament, the last time the Bobcats went dancing.

The following season, UM center Brent Smith broke his foot early in the year. A roster that eventually featured five starters from the state of Montana didn’t seem to have much of a chance entering the 1996-97.

“We lose perhaps our best player after 12 games after we had beaten Washington State, we had beaten Gonzaga at Gonzaga on their home court,” said Taylor, a former Griz player who then served as the head coach of his alma mater from 1991 until 1998, remembered nearly 25 years later. “We had the makings of a pretty good team but then we had to find ourselves without Brent.”

Those Griz, with the 7-foot Smith out for the year,  lost a game in late January at Weber State. It infuriated Taylor.

“I remember being so mad that I actually took the kids back to the hotel and I fed them a happy meal,” Taylor said with a laugh. “I couldn’t abuse them. I had to feed them something (laughs). But I was so mad, I fed them happy meals, the smallest burger in Ogden, Utah and the smallest fry in the state of Utah and we sat and watched that whole film that night. I was so mad, I couldn’t believe it.”

That wakeup call paid off. Montana won seven of nine down the stretch, earning a rematch with Weber in the semifinals. The Griz annihilated the Wildcats, posting an 81-56 victory in Flagstaff to advance to the title game.

“There’s probably been five to 10 times in my whole career where after a game, I just scratched my head and wondered how that happen,” said Taylor, who was the head coach in 590 Division I games, winning 380 of them between UM and Old Dominion. “We just absolutely smoked them.

Idaho State women’s basketball team celebrates during the 2019 Big Sky Conference Tournament/by Brooks Nuanez

“We are playing with house money. It’s like pennies from heaven. We are in the championship game.”

Cal State Northridge upset top-seeded NAU, setting up a neutral court championship. The Griz won 82-79 to advance to the Big Dance for second time under Taylor and the third time in the 1990s.

“It as quite a celebration because we had knocked on the door before but it was odd because every other tournament championship we had won had been in Missoula,” Taylor said. “You just never know who is going to win when you go to those neutral site deals and you never know who is going to get upset. That’s why you play these things.”

The Big Sky Tournament begins in Boise, Idaho on Monday March 9.

Krystkowiak never advanced to theBig Dance as a player. Montgomery never got to the NCAA Tournament with the Griz, although he would go dancing 16 times combined between his time at Stanford (1986-2004) and Cal (2008-2014).

Between the first Big Sky tournament in 1976 and Idaho’s win over Eastern Washington in the tournament championship game on Boise State’s home court in 1990, a total of 10 non-hosting squads won the league tournament to advance.

All the BSC tournaments in the 1980s came with unpredictable results. Stu Starner’s 1986 Montana State Bobcats might’ve made the most unlikely run of them all.

That MSU squad finished the season 14-17 after starting 6-14. MSU got red-hot, particularly from beyond the arc. Before that season, the NCAA added the 3-point line to the Big Sky Conference alone as an experiment before adding it to the rest of the leagues across the country.

Weber State head coach Randy Rahe accepts the 2016 Big Sky Tournament trophy/By Brooks Nuanez

“We were a basketball team with a losing record who made it to the NCAA Tournament,” Starner remembered 34 years later. “That was big news. But there is a bigger story to it.”

MSU lost six of its first seven against a brutal non-conference schedule that included games at LSU, at home against Cal, at home against Nebraska and at San Diego. MSU’s first big win came at Loyola Marymount. But the team lost five of six to enter the stretch run eight games below .500.

The final four games of the season, the Bobcats turned a corner and began to shoot the lights out from beyond the arc. It came to a head in the season finale, an 88-76 win over rival Montana to deny Krystkowiak and the Grizzlies the regular-season title.

MSU upset top-seeded Nevada 81-80 in Reno in the first round of the tournament. The Bobcats beat NAU 80-74 in the semis. And in the championship, Kral Ferch hit six 3-pointers in a 29-point outing, Tony Hampton slashed all over court on his way to 28 points and tournament MVP honors and the Bobcats posted an 82-77 win over Montana despite Krystkowiak’s 30 points.

“That group changed expectations of we can and at Montana State,” Starner said. “That group put Bobcat basketball back on the map.”

The Grizzlies broke an NCAA Tournament drought that lasted from 1975 until 1991, when Montana became the first Big Sky team to win the tournament on their home court since Idaho did it on the way to a league-high No. 3 seed in the 1982 NCAA Tournament.

Since head coach Stew Morrill led the Griz to that breakthrough, Montana has advanced to the NCAA Tournament 11 times, nearly twice as many berths as any other team in the league over the last 29 years.

Eastern Washington women’s basketball players celebrate a semi final win as the final horn blows in the 2019 Big Sky Conference Tournament/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana won the Big Sky Tournament at Dahlberg Arena in 1991 under Morrill and the following year at home under Blaine Taylor following Morrill’s departure to Colorado State. The Griz punched their tickets to the Big Dance in Missoula in 2012 and 2013 as well. But five times (1997, 2002, 2005, 2006 and 2010) the Griz celebrated on someone else’s home court. And the last two seasons, Montana has cut down the nets on neutral courts.

Outside of Krystkowiak’s two seasons at the helm, Montana had two runs (1996, 2002) that were among the league’s most surprising.

The Bobcats’ run to the Big Sky title in 1986 has only been matched once, by one unlikely run with Cat-Griz origins. In 2002, Don Holst was in his fourth season as the head coach at Montana. Two years earlier his team had lost to Cal State-Northridge in the semifinals of the league tournament in Missoula after winning the regular-season.

That season, Montana suffered a pair of 20-point losses to Montana State, who went on to win the regular-season championship, marking the last time the Bobcats hung a regular-season banner.

After an embarrassing 75-55 loss to MSU in Missoula to finish the regular season with a 13-14 record that included 7-7 mark in Big Sky play, Holst dwelled for a few days.

“I was really down in the mouth about losing to Montana State on Saturday night and I really wasn’t pleasant to be around,” Holst said. “I was thinking about what we were going to do because the tournament was the next week and it was at Montana State.

“All I could think about how we were going to overcome, how I was going to get my kids up and ready to go to that tournament. We could beat every team in that tournament. I truly believed that. Did we play well against Montana State every time? No we didn’t and I couldn’t figure it out.”

2006 Big Sky Conference Champions Montana Grizzlies/courtesy of Big Sky Conference

So Holst started making phone calls to fellow coaching colleagues. Eventually, he had a conversation with the son of former Detroit Pistons enforcer Bill Lambeer. The advice: take the pressure off the senior offensively and put pressure on them defensively.

“I sat down with my seniors and I asked them what they wanted,” Holst said. “I told them this was their tournament to win but we had to sell out on this. I asked them, ‘Do I make you nervous sometime when we are running offense or if you missed a shot?’ They all raised their hands. So I said, ‘I’m going to stop doing that. This week, I’m going to take a little pressure off on the offensive end. But I’m going to be chewing your butts on the defensive end.’

“They bought in. It freed up their minds.”

Montana, the No. 6 seed, upset No. 3 Northern Arizona 82-64 to move into the semifinals. Against the host Bobcats, Griz power forward Dan Trammel made one of the most iconic plays at the buzzer in the history of the tournament.

With the score tied at 68, David Bell missed a jump shot but Trammel followed it up with a tip-in dunk at the buzzer to lift the Griz into the championship game.

“All of a sudden, they play not to lose, they miss shots and we make shots and pretty soon, it’s our game,” said Holst, who led the Griz to a 70-66 win over Eastern Washington in what became a neutral site title game. “The rest is history.”

The Big Sky Tournament begins in Boise, Idaho on Monday March 9.

Photo attribution noted. 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 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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