MISSOULA, Montana — In a championship battle pitting two of the Big Sky Conference’s best teams led by two of the league’s best players, Northern Colorado found a way to win in Missoula again.
And just like in the season-finale of the 2016 season, UNC’s 71-64 denies the Grizzlies from hanging a banner.
Northern Colorado senior Jonah Radebaugh, one of the front-runners for Big Sky Player of the Year, did not play the final nine minutes, 21 seconds of the first half. That served as the most elongated break for the league’s leader in minutes played in all of 2021.
When he returned to action, he put his team on his back. The two-time Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year showed the 4,822 pro-Griz fans in attendance just how well-rounded his game has become. Not only did he check Montana senior Sayeed Pridgett, himself an MVP candidate, for the full 20 minutes of the second half. The former walk-on scored 17 of his team-high 21, grabbed all five of his rebounds and dished out three of his game-high five assists after the break.
“We came in with the same mindset every game, but we know these guys are good and we can’t let our guard down,” Radebaugh said. “We are only good on edge so we came in here on edge and we came here expecting to do what we do.
“It’s easier to be on edge at a place like this when there are tons of fans, yelling at you and it’s a really good team like Montana.”
The victory keeps Northern Colorado alive for the Big Sky title. The win also ensures Eastern Washington, a 100-75 victor over Idaho State Thursday night, earns at least a share of the regular-season league championship.
Northern Colorado is now 14-5 in conference play, same as Montana. And Thursday’s win in Missoula, UNC’s second straight victory at Dahlberg Arena, keeps the Bears alive for a share of the conference title. Northern Colorado is 21-9 this season, marking the third straight season with 20 wins under fourth-year head coach Jeff Linder. The program had three 20-win seasons in its history before Linder took over.
“We had a really tough loss Saturday at home to Eastern Washington (68-64) and we knew we could do one of two things, but I knew the guys we had in that locker room, we were going to get a great response,” Linder said after leading his team to a second straight win in Missoula. “Now, I also knew we were playing a really good team on their home floor and I knew it was going to be hard to win. I knew we were going to have to come in here with a special type of effort.”
Despite losing just their second contest at home this season and falling at Dahlberg Arena for just the fourth time in the last 43 games on their home court, the Grizzlies remain alive for their fourth regular-season title in six seasons under head coach Travis DeCuire. Montana will have to beat Southern Utah in Missoula on Saturday plus hope for losses by Eastern Washington (at home against Weber State) and by Northern Colorado at Montana State.
“We have to keep playing,” DeCuire said. “We were here in 2016 and we lost the last game (to UNC) that would’ve given us a banner. But we won in the tournament and got to the championship game.
“A lot is still out there for us but we have to stay strong.”
UNC can share the league title with a win over Montana State, an EWU loss and a Montana loss.
“We knew there would be pressure on them,” Linder said. “They knew if they were to win out, they would win the league. That’s hard. Coach DeCuire and his staff have done a tremendous job.”
For the final 12 minutes of the game, every time Northern Colorado needed a big shot, Radebaugh rose to the occasion. Montana took its first lead of the game, 42-41, with 12:56 remaining on one of Pridgett’s 10 second-half field goal conversions.
On the play, Pridgett lowered his shoulder, driving Radebaugh to the floor. Despite the fact that the officiating crew called six offensive charges in the first half, including two each on Radebaugh and Pridgett that relegated the stars to the bench, no call was made.
Radebaugh debated with one official for a few seconds before taking the ball and promptly burying a 3-pointer to help the Bears snatch the lead right back. That shot sparked a 10-2 UNC run go give the visitors breathing room.
Pridgett’s conversion with 8:52 left again cut the Northern Colorado lead to one possession, 51-48. Again, Radebaugh answered about 30 seconds later with a dagger 3-pointer.
“In my opinion, that’s the two best players in the league,” Linder said. “They are probably co-MVPs in my opinion. I have so much respect for Sayeed, just his will, his spirit. And you have to match that. And we know that. And I have a guy that most teams in the league don’t have in Jonah Radebaugh who can match his spirit and match his will. What you saw was a great college basketball game between two really good players.”
By the time Radebaugh converted a layup with 2:37 left, UNC had its biggest lead of the game, a 66-50 advantage. UNC earned six stops in a row during the run.
“I think we just took our time on offense and we were taking care of the ball more than in the first half,” Radebaugh said. “We were taking care of the ball and getting whatever look we wanted, taking our time and finding the right looks and guys were stepping up and making shots.”
The Griz mounted an 8-0 run that included two buckets from Pridgett as well as senior Kendal Manuel’s one and only basket of the night. That runner cut the UNC lead to 66-58 with 1:08 left.
Montana cut the gap to five points on two different occasions in the final 68 seconds, using a UNC 5-second violation, a turnover and two more near giveaways and three missed free throws conjured up memories of the thriller between the two teams in Reno, Nevada on March 10, 2018.
Two years and five days ago, Montana trailed UNC by six points with 57 seconds to play in the semifinals of the Big Sky Tournament. Somehow, Montana forced enough UNC miscues to force overtime on the way to a 91-89 win to advance to the tournament championship game. In a collection of scares UM has endured over the last two BSC tournaments on the way to consecutive NCAA Tournament berths, that triumph over UNC tops the list.
Manuel’s steal with 38 seconds left led to a pair of Timmy Falls free throws that cut UNC’s lead to 67-62 with 31 seconds left. Bears’ sophomore Sam Masten missed the first of two free throws but hit the second.
With 14 seconds left, Griz freshman Derrick Carter-Hollinger — who finished with 15 points and eight rebounds — missed a 3-pointer. Matt Johnson, who held Manuel completely scoreless for nearly 59 minutes, knocked down two free throws to seal the victory.
“I’m not sure we really navigated the last 90 seconds of this game,” Linder said. “We are actually pretty good at closing out games but give credit to those guys for being smart and knowing who to foul and who not to foul.
“What Matt Johnson did on Kendal, Kendal came into the game averaging 18 a game in league, playing at a really high level. We had Jonah guarding Sayeed so for Matt to guard Kendal, that’s the difference in the game right there.”
Northern Colorado shot 57 percent in the first half but led just 30-25 at halftime thanks to a plodding last nine minutes of action with Radebaugh on the bench. The Griz drew four offensive foul charges while UNC drew two more, both on Pridgett.
That meant Radebaugh didn’t play the last 9:21 of the first half while Pridgett subbed out with 7:58 until halftime.
When the two stars returned, the battle ensued. Radebaugh scored 17 after the break but Pridgett scored 20, overcoming a 2-of-6 shooting start to convert 10-of-17 after halftime.
But UNC’s 3-point shooting — the Bears made four of their five 3-pointers in the second half, including the two Radebaugh daggers and a triple by Trent Harris to squelch another UM run — and Montana finished 1-of-12 from deep, including 1-of-7 in the second half.
Pridgett finished with 26 points and eight rebounds but Montana now must rally and hope for some help if another banner is to hang from the rafters in Dahlberg.
“We wanted to get this one because we lost the last one so maybe we came in too fiery,” Pridgett said. “But we will get to the tournament and we want to win that thing.
“The season isn’t over even though we have this loss. That’s our motivation right now.”
Photos by Liam McCollum or noted. All Rights Reserved.