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MONTANANS IN MADNESS: Welcome to the most unique Big Dance ever Part III

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Editor’s Note: what follows is the third installment of a five-part series that provides a first-hand account of a trip to Indianapolis for the 2021 NCAA men’s basketball tournament by Colter Nuanez and Riley Corcoran. The co-founder of Skyline Sports and the head of ESPN Missoula was accompanied by the Voice of the Griz to America’s heartland for the most unorthodox Big Dance of all time.

DAY 2 – Jackie Moon & Napoleon Dynamite light world on fire

At dinner Friday at a restaurant called “Bone & Broth” where the head chef was a recent winner of the popular cooking contest show “Hell’s Kitchen”, we sat with a couple who mourned while watching Purdue lose in real time. On Saturday during breakfast, we sat alone while watching former Northern Colorado head coach Tad Boyle lead the Colorado Buffs to a 96-73 win over Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas.

RayQuan Evans led Billings Skyview to Class AA state titles as a sophomore and a junior, earning a reputation as a bullish, aggressive downhill guard with Division I potential during his prep days in Montana. But grades issues kept him from following in his father, Israel’s, footsteps by playing for Montana.

After initially committing to Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Evans ended up going to North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene. While in the middle of a breakout second season at NIC, a now widely circulated picture of Evans talking to Ewing, an NBA Hall of Fame center for the New York Knicks during his playing career and one of Georgetown’s most famed alums, began to make the rounds on social media. 

That sparked Evans’ recruiting, helping him earn offers from Larry Krystkowiak at Utah, Ewing’s Hoyas and eventually Leonard Hamilton at Florida State.

Evans, a senior starter for the Seminoles, scored just one point but fourth-seeded FSU moved into the second round with a 64-54 win over UNC-Greensboro before we made our way to our first live game of the day. 

And so began a day of basketball that would soon be defined by a pair of goofy, lovable brothers who happened to be from the Big Sky Conference.

Both of those finals were in the books while the Groves Bros tried to help Eastern break the Big Sky’s Big Dance drought.

Eastern Washington stumbled down the regular-season stretch, losing at Idaho State, a defeat that cost the Eagles the outright Big Sky championship. Instead, Southern Utah claimed its first league title in its second-to-last year in the league. The Thunderbirds will exit the Big Sky Conference following the upcoming fall semester to join the Western Athletic Conference.

Eastern Washington brothers Jacob and Tanner Groves/by Brooks Nuanez

But Montana State knocked out Southern Utah in overtime in the semifinals of this year’s Big Sky Tournament, earning a championship game bid for the first time in 12 years.

The MSU run was the first notable breakthrough of Danny Sprinkle’s tenure leading his alma mater. The second-year head coach was one of Montana State’s most popular athletes as a player. He was the 1996 Big Sky Tournament MVP after leading the Bobcats to their most recent NCAA Tournament appearance. A generation later, Sprinkle helped the Bobcats knock out the tournament’s top seed and advance to the first BSC title game not featuring Montana or Weber State since 2009.

Meanwhile, Montana knocked out third-seeded Weber State in the quarterfinals, further extending the narrative that WSU 16th-year head coach Randy Rahe just can’t beat the Griz, particularly in Missoula or in the postseason.

That set up a third straight conference tournament matchup between Montana and Eastern Washington and the fourth in six postseasons dating back to when EWU won the last non-neutral site tournament, earning the 2015 title on UM’s home floor.

The next two EWU vs. UM postseason matchups came in the finals of the 2018 and 2019 Big Sky Tournament, respectively. The Griz won both, advancing to the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons. Before the pandemic caused the cancellation of the 2020 Big Sky Tournament entering the quarterfinal round, Montana was the only team to sweep the outright league champions from EWU.

But this March, Eastern dismantled Montana three times in a row, including a 78-50 decimation of the Grizzlies in the semifinals of the most recent league tourney. The loss marked the largest margin of defeat in head coach Travis

DeCuire’s seven seasons as the head coach of his alma mater. In fact, the 28-point loss doubled the previous largest loss; both of those 14-point defeats came at the hands of the Eagles during the most recent regular-season.

DeCuire’s seven seasons as the head coach of his alma mater. In fact, the 28-point loss doubled the previous largest loss; both of those 14-point defeats came at the hands of the Eagles during the most recent regular-season.

Montana guard Josh Vazquez (3) is trapped by Eastern Washington guard Ellis Magnuson (55) and Kim Aiken Jr. (24)/by Brooks Nuanez

EWU had little trouble with Northern Arizona or Montana in the tournament. In the championship game against MSU, Eastern opened up a 20-point first-half lead and cruised to its third conference tournament title in school history.

The Big Sky Conference has the longest drought between NCAA Tournament victories of any of the 32 conferences competing in Division I men’s basketball. UM’s win over Nevada in the 2006 tournament marks the last time a Big Sky team won a game in the Big Dance.

Eastern Washington head coach Shantay Legans cuts down the nets/by Brooks Nuanez

More often than not, the Big Sky champion draws an unfavorable seed and the subsequent unfavorable matchup that goes with it. And that appeared to be EWU’s fortune initially when the Eagles drew Kansas, one of the storied programs in college hoops history. 

Behind the outstanding play of the stellar play of junior center Tanner Groves, the Big Sky’s regular-season and tournament MVP, and his sophomore brother, Jacob Groves, EWU led at halftime and had the upper hand by double figures twice in the second half.

Tanner Groves poured in 35 points, the most points ever scored by a Big Sky player in the NCAA Tournament, surpassing Eric Hays’ 32-point effort in Montana’s 67-64 loss to UCLA in 1975.

Montana’s loss to UCLA in the Sweet 16 marked the first time a Griz or Big Sky team had advanced that far. Two years later, Idaho State became the first, last and only Big Sky squad to win a pair of games in a single NCAA Tournament.

Jacob Groves added 23 points and the Eagles hung with one of college basketball’s most successful brands.

Those performances caused for an already heart warming story to go viral. Tanner Groves gained traction as a Jackie Moon lookalike, a reference to the Will Ferrell comedy Semi-Pro featuring a hoops star with that name. And Jacob Groves earned comparisons to Napoleon Dynamite, the star character of a comedy by the same name about an awkward, hilarious teenager growing up in rural Idaho.

Because of limitations on media credentials due to Covid-19 protocol, the Spokane media filled up the five media spots for EWU’s press corps. So we did not get press credentials. Instead, we found a way to get tickets to sit in Eastern’s parents/family section.

That section cheered on the Eagles’ effort passionately throughout the game. But late, Kansas caught fire from beyond the arc and Eastern couldn’t keep up, falling 93-84 at Indiana Farmers Coliseum.

The scene at Farmers was interesting considering there were significantly more fans there than when we saw suitless Jay Wright and Villanova the night before. Many wore Boilermaker black and rooted passionately against the Jayhawks. Purdue, after all, had been bounced less than 24 hours before.

That became a theme – tracking the fans of teams with Final Four dreams who had their hearts broken earlier than expected. Illinois, Purdue, Iowa and Texas all went from optimistic to devastated before the weekend even reached its end. 

After a lengthy Uber ride where we thought for several minutes we were lost, we arrived for our first full game at Lucas Oil Stadium. Fifth-seeded Creighton and No. 12 UC-Santa Barbara did not disappoint. Creighton has 21 NCAA Tournament appearances, including 12 since 2000. The Bluejays have advanced to the second round five times since 2002, including this season as they survived for a 63-62 victory over USCB.

Despite Creighton’s prestige coming into the tournament, the Gauchos were a popular upset pick. And Santa Barbara — a team that scored 91 points in a 22-point win against a Brian Fish-coached Montana State squad in 2017 in UCSB’s last trip to the Treasure State — almost proved those bettors right. 

We arrived back at Lucas Oil for a second time on this day, this time sitting in the corner for No. 8 seed Oklahoma against No. 9 Missouri. The Tigers have some ties back to the West Coast; Cuonzo Martin, Missouri’s head coach, was hired as the head coach at Cal leading up to the 2014 season following the retirement of Mike Montgomery, the former Griz head coach.

DeCuire had been an assistant on Montgomery’s staff from 2008 until 2014 and was in the mix to replace one of his mentors before Martin landed the gig.

While the eighth-seeded Sooners held on for a 72-68 win over Martin and Mizzou in what would prove to be the 674th and last win of revered OU head coach Lon Kruger, top-seeded Gonzaga continued working on history.

The Zags blasted upstart Norfolk State, posting a 98-55 victory over the MEAC champion. We monitored that victory, Gonzaga’s 27th to that point, and the UCLA 73-62 win over BYU while eating wings and drinking gin at the Slippery Noodle, a bar you have to imagine Jim Harbaugh popped into at least once during his time as the starting quarterback for the Colts. 

While at Lucas Oil watching a former Big XII intra-conference matchup between Sooners and the now SEC-affiliated Tigers, we started researching our nightcap. Riley found a nondescript pair of admittance vouchers that did not in fact indicate specific seats.

On the day Wentz arrived in Indianapolis, we found ourselves on the third floor of the Colts’ arena in the Lucas Oil Quarterback Suite. We didn’t realize the affiliation of the people in the box until Abilene Christian — a former Division II power located in Abilene, Texas (population: 120,000) before moving up to Division I in 2013 — started pushing the third-seeded Texas Longhorns.

In the second half, Abilene scored a go-ahead bucket in a slugfest of a contest with countless lead changes. As we feasted on the fish tacos, snacks, desserts and drinks provided as part of the suite perks, we started to realize most of the people in the box were strongly affiliated with UT. Our cheering ceased.

Following Abilene’s 53-52 upset of UT, marking just the 21st time in tournament history a 14 seed took down a No. 3 seed, we tracked down an Uber. But this ride would alter the rest of our Indianapolis experience.

MONTANAS IN MADNESS

PART I : Welcome to the most unique Big Dance ever

PART II – TINKLE THE CINDERELLA MAN – THURSDAY JULY 1

PART III – JACKIE MOON & NAPOLEON DYNAMITE MEET THE NATION – JULY 2

PART IV – A MILE HIGH, A MILE DEEP – SATURDAY JULY 3

PART V – WEST COAST CONNECTION – SATURDAY JULY 4

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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