While on vacation in Central Oregon, a stranger approached Andrew Strait.
For the former Montana power forward, it was not a completely uncommon experience. He is 6-foot-8 and he often wears Grizzly garb when he’s out and about. He was living in Yakima, Washington at the time and now lives in Portland, so he runs into Montana faithful now and again.
This particular stranger wanted to know who the tall man in the Griz sweatshirt was. She removed her coat and she wore a Nevada Wolf Pack sweatshirt. She asked Strait’s name. When he responded, her demeanor changed.
“She knew exactly who I was,” Strait said years later with a chuckle. “She started talking about that game and she said there was a lot of Nevada fans who were still bitter about that game.”
That game serves as a moment in time that has yet to be bested even 10 years later. That game, Strait seemed unstoppable as he led his Montana Grizzlies to the Big Sky Conference’s last win in the NCAA Tournament with a victory over the Wolf Pack.
Wednesday marks the 10th anniversary of that historic victory. UM will celebrate the anniversary by playing the exact same opponent. The Grizzlies fell just short of their fourth NCAA Tournament bid in seven seasons with a 62-59 loss in the Big Sky Tournament championship game to Weber State. But the Griz will still play in the postseason. Ten years ago to the day of when Montana toppled the Wolf Pack in Salt Lake City, the Griz will take on Nevada in Reno in the first round of the College Basketball Invitational.
The reasons the Big Sky has been unable to break through in the Big Dance are many. But the memories of that last NCAA Tournament victory remain strong with Strait and his former teammates.
Montana had reached the brink the season before as head coach Larry Krystkowiak, the only three-time Big Sky MVP during his time as a Griz player, claimed his first Big Sky title for his alma mater. Krystkowiak was a supreme individual talent, scoring 2,017 points and grabbing 1,105 rebounds before playing 13 seasons in the NBA. But his 2005 trip to the Big Dance was his first.
The Griz drew Brandon Roy, Nate Robinson and the top-seeded Washington Huskies. Montana put up a fight for a 16-seed before eventually falling 88-77.
The following season, Krystkowiak wanted desperately to return. He knew Strait was a rising star as a sophomore. He knew he had a gritty senior backcourt in Kevin Criswell and Virgil Matthews. He knew Matt Dlouhy would slow down any perimeter slasher and Jordan Hasquet gave Coach K a 6-foot-9 forward who would shoot from the perimeter.
Krystkowiak put together a trying non-conference schedule that included an opener at Boise State, a home and home with Loyola Marymount, home dates with Stanford, Drake and Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a road trip with stops at UC Riverside and Santa Clara. The Griz garnered national attention by sweeping Loyola Marymount, beating Stanford by almost 20 at home and taking Bruce Pearl’s UW-Milwaukee Panthers down to the wire before a four-point loss in front of a sellout crowd of 7,213 in Missoula.
Montana’s 13-2 non-conference mark would prove valuable after a grueling conference schedule that yielded a 10-4 mark, tied for second in the conference. UM knew it would have to go on the road and win the conference tournament, just like it had the season before.
Dlouhy remembers the sense of belief was strong Senior Night with Kelly Bolob and the NAU Lumberjacks in town.
Matt Dlouhy, junior small forward on 2006 Grizzlies: “Criswell could do everything but he had never dunked in a game before. I remember on Senior Night in Missoula against NAU, he filled the lane and he rose up and we thought there was no way, then he dunked it on Northern Arizona’s big guy (Ruben Boykin, Jr.). I was on the bench and I remember exploding out of my seat and maybe even falling to the ground when he dunked it.”
Criswell’s jam sent the crowd of 5,813 into pandemonium. The Colstrip Combine finished his final game in Missoula with 21 points, including that momentum-sparking dunk that sent Montana to the Big Sky Tournament in Flagstaff, Arizona on fire.
Virgil Matthews, Montana senior guard on 2006 Grizzlies: “We thought we were the best team all-around even though we didn’t win the regular season conference title. Because of those games, Stanford, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, we were a confident team. We believed we could beat anybody.”
Andrew Strait, Montana sophomore power forward on 2006 Grizzlies. “I remember that Northern Arizona trip. My freshman and sophomore year, I tend to get mixed up a little bit because we went to the tournament both times so it’s hard to distinguish what happened which year but I definitely remember NAU trip vividly. Coach K put us up in a really nice hotel in Phoenix. We soaked it up and then went to Flagstaff the next day. It’s tough playing down there, the fans, the altitude; everything is unfavorable for an opponent.
“We won the semifinal game against Eastern Washington and (NBA Veteran) Rodney Stuckey missed a jump shot that he makes 19 out of 20 times to lose the game for them against us in overtime (UM won 73-71). We went to the championship and like every time we played NAU, it was just a battle. Those guys are really physical. They had some great teams there while we were playing. I remember Jordan Hasquet had a huge game (21 points and 13 rebounds) and we won.
“We were so excited to get back to the tournament. We went our first year and played UW in Boise, didn’t compete too well, better than most 16 seeds I guess but we wanted another shot. We had a lot of guys who returned and some new players. To go down to NAU and get that big win and get a chance to go back to the tournament was huge.”
The Griz returned to Missoula after claiming their second straight bid to the NCAA Tournament. Montana gathered for a watch party at Paradise Falls for the announcement of their seed. The Atlanta, Oakland and Washington D.C. regions were all announced. Montana’s name was nowhere to be found. When Villanova, Ohio State and Florida were announced as the top seeds in the Minneapolis region, the Griz wondered if somehow the committee forgot about the Big Sky’s automatic qualifier.
Larry Krystkowiak, Montana head coach in 2006, current University of Utah head coach, speaking to Jon Kasper of the Big Sky Conference: “We were one of the last groups on the list. I’d already counted all of the 15, 16 and 14 seeds, and I thought, ‘where in the world are we going to be?’ Based on the history of the Big Sky, I anticipated one of those lower seeds.”
Wayne Tinkle, Montana head assistant in 2006, UM head coach from 2007 until 2014, current Oregon State head coach: “The Big Sky always kind of gets stiffed on seeding as it is but we thought we’d get a decent one. We knew we wouldn’t get a 16. We were hoping for a 14 maybe. But then what proved out was that we had won so many games in the non-league and we had swept Loyola Marymount who missed a layup to beat Gonzaga in the WCC Championship game. If they make that layup, they beat Gonzaga. I think the committee thought highly of us because of the wins we had in the non-league season.”
Two seeds later, Montana learned its draw. The Grizzlies were headed to Salt Lake City as the No. 12 seed in the Midwest Region to face Nick Fazekas and the fifth-seeded Western Athletic Conference champion Nevada Wolf Pack.
Matthews, who still plays professionally for Cheminitz in Germany: “Seeing that 12 was something else. We were surprised. We didn’t think we would get something that high. A lot of people were predicting us to play Gonzaga or San Diego just because of the travel and everything would be close. But once we saw who we played and where, we were excited.
“I felt right there we could beat them. It was even noted that they felt disrespected or not respected in the way they wanted to be. But that’s the way we felt. We had a couple of teams that we figured that we didn’t want to play but Nevada wasn’t really one of those teams. We felt good right away. It makes it more realistic to believe.”
Tinkle, who leads his Oregon State Beavers into their first tournament since 1990 on Friday against VCU: “When we saw 12, we were blown away. When we saw we drew Nevada, it was not out of disrespect that we were excited. It was more familiarity. We were like, ‘Shoot, they were in the Big Sky a handful of years ago.’ It wasn’t that instant intimidation kind of deal. We felt really good that we would have a chance if everything fell into place.”
Strait, who works in pharmaceutical sales in Portland and is married to former Lady Griz soccer player Lindsay Winans “It’s fun being a part of the 12-5 matchup. That’s reassuring for us based on the history of that seeded pair. I didn’t think we really expected to be seeded that high because we were a 16 the year before. We had a little better RPI that year and had beaten some better teams. The 12 seed was so exciting. We had a watch party out there in Missoula and the seed comes on and the place just erupts. We were ready to play at that moment.
“I don’t know if confidence is the right word but it was the lesser of the evils. That five seed is always a really solid team. You have a team from the same region and getting to play in Salt Lake fairly close to home was also a benefit. We travel well, our fans travel well and getting to go down there and play against a team like Nevada was the best case scenario.”
Dlouhy, who is in medical devise sales in Seattle: “When we saw Nevada, we 100 percent knew we were going to win. We thought we might get screwed again and get a 16 and have to play a Pac 10 or an SEC team. But when we saw Mountain West and we were a 12, there was no doubt. It wasn’t being cocky. We just knew 100 percent that we were going to win.”
The Griz left for Salt Lake City and held a few practices before their second chance at writing a Cinderella Story. Matthews said Krystkowiak and his coaches treated the game just like any other.
Tinkle: “We knew we could compete if we followed Coach K’s game plan and stayed together. The big thing about that moment was we had no fear. In that moment, you have two kinds of fears: that you will be content just being there and the fact that we didn’t win the regular season and everyone thought, ‘Ok, let’s win the tournament. We deserve to be there.’ We made a run to win that thing and we felt a lot of momentum going so there was a belief that we weren’t done yet. We weren’t just satisfied to be there. Then the other fear is we put so much focus when I was the head coach, the importance of winning the tournament, maybe a time or two, we were happy with doing that and we didn’t’ have great performances. That year, we felt like we had something going and let’s keep it rolling. Our guys were super confident and you have to give credit to Larry for creating that mindset.
“The year before, we won the Big Sky and we got Washington as a No. 1 seed and (Krystkowiak) was thirsty for more. I remember him saying that until we get there consistently and win some games, we can’t be satisfied. The fact that there was a familiarity with Nevada, he was fired up. We are not going to just punch our ticket. We are going to go make some noise.”
Matthews, a Tacoma native: “I watched a whole game of (Nevada) with Bryan (Ellis) and Stuart (Mayes) and I was like, we are going to beat these guys. We had so much confidence from the beginning. Once we got out there, we just knew.
“Washington had two NBA stars on their team (Roy, Robinson). They had Will Conroy. They had Justin Dentman as a freshman. They were stacked. I wanted to beat those guys so bad because I’m from there. I was so ready. That would’ve been great. Playing Nevada, it was just a different feel.
“We wanted to make a story. That was our whole deal. We wanted to be a 16 and win. Then when we didn’t do that, the next year, if we were that close to beating them then, we were ready to beat somebody. We were a year hungrier.”
Montana played with the confidence of a favorite, dumping the ball into Strait early and often. His jump hook 22 seconds into the game gave UM a lead it would not relinquish. Nevada went on runs but Montana never faultered.
Strait: “We certainly believed we could win the whole time. You get out there, you get over the jitters, the intimidation of the event itself and you just shake off the early set of anxiety and all that and you settle in. I knew if we came out and were able to overcome those early minutes of the game and play like we were capable of playing and how we had played all year, we wouldn’t waiver.
“Our team was really solid. We knew how to win close games and we weren’t the type of team that didn’t show up from the start. Everyone being aware of the magnitude of the NCAA Tournament, the 12-5 matchup, who was in front of us, that’s what it came down to. We knew if we could overcome the nerves at the start of the game and play how we knew how to play, we’d have a good shot at winning.”
That shot at winning had much to do with Strait’s ability to have his will in the post against Fazekas, a 7-foot National Player of the Year Candidate who was the WAC MVP. Strait poured in Montana’s first six points and started drawing a double team. From there, he was able to use his deft post moves to either score or pass proficiently. He finished 9-of-15 from the floor for 22 points and dished out seven assists.
Tinkle: “In the Big Sky, everyone knew Andrew was going to go to that jump hook to his left shoulder. Heading into the NCAA Tournament, we worked on a bunch of counter moves. He had such great footwork and we were going up against some pretty big guys in Fazekas and Marcellus Kemp. We spent a lot of time on up and unders and made the defender move their feet and not just relying on that jump hook. He put on a clinic there for awhile. He looked like Tim Duncan, Kevin McHale down there and really had them flustered.”
Dlouhy: “You are not going to guard Strait straight up. He always had the next move. He was always going to make you look silly.”
Strait: “I’ve played against a lot of really talented players. I played on a really high profile AAU team (in Yakima) and I had an opportunity to play against a ton of really good players at Montana. I had always enjoyed the big stage. There are just some games you have a different feeling at the start. I just knew I was going to be on. I didn’t have any anxious nerves. I felt really good that day and tried not to overthink it and kind of let it all come my way.”
Behind Strait’s hot start and solid ball movement, Montana entered halftime with a 40-33 lead. With six minutes to go, Nevada cut it to 63-60 before Montana ripped off a 9-0 run, including a Strait bucket, a Matthews 3-pointer and a Criswell layup out of a designed play drawn up by Krystkowiak during a timeout.
Matthews: “That’s Strait. He was our second-leading scorer, right there with Criswell. But he had seven assists that game too. We told him if he passed it, we would make shots for him. That game, he did and we did.”
Criswell’s layup with three minutes to play extended Montana’s lead to 70-60 and his jump shot in the lane on the next possession stretched the advantage to 12. Montana’s captain scored 10 of his 18 points in the final 3:30 of the game, including sinking eight free throws down the stretch as Montana secured an upset for the ages, an 87-79 victory over the Wolf Pack, the first NCAA Tournament win by a Big Sky team since 1999 and the last victory a BSC school has celebrated at the Big Dance.
Dlouhy: “Kevin literally tried to fight all of us at one point in the season. It wasn’t because he hated us. It wasn’t because we hated him. He just wanted us to follow him. And he loved us so we did.
“We were a tight-knit bunch and no one cared who the star was. Larry wouldn’t let anyone be the star and we all knew Kevin was the leader so we just followed him.”
Matthews: “He’s (Criswell) so intense. Him and Big Jon (Seifert) had been there so long. He was a senior. For me coming in, it was like do what he says. He’s so intense. It’s pretty funny when you look at how intense he is looking back on it.”
“We got lucky with me, Stuart and Bryan who were junior college guys who fit in. The way junior college works, it’s so difficult but we bought in and we got along so well. Kev was big in making sure no one got out of line.”
Tinkle: “The one thing I remember about that team was there was no egos. Criswell was tough, a tremendous leader. Strait was emerging but was tough. Virgil was tough as nails. We had Hasquet and Dlouhy who were shooters and tough matchups. We were just a hard-nosed team. We weren’t stroked all year long like we were the greatest. We had to fight for everything and that was a big part of it. We were a humble team and a tough team and that allowed us to enjoy the success we did.
“And if we ever needed a big shot, we just turned to Cris.”
Krystkowiak to Jon Kasper of the Big Sky Conference: “To get that win was really beyond words. The whole mission of me going back was I wanted to get a taste of that. There was some frustration when I played. We had great teams, but we never got to experience the NCAA Tournament. I remember enjoying it with the fans and players, and then I went back to my room. There was this gigantic bottle of bubble bath. I poured it in, sat back and soaked it all up.”
Immediately after Montana’s upset, Pacific took Boston College to overtime before falling. For a moment, Montana thought it might be the favorite in a 12-13 second-round game. But BC pulled it out.
Strait: “The turnaround was definitely hard, especially because we were a Big Sky team who just won a game. All the media attention, all the excitement associated with a win like that, to turn around and have to get focused immediately on the next game was hard.”
Dlouhy: “I truly feel that is the apex. You win your conference tournament on the road at a hostile court against a team that was like a rival, then you go on the road for your second straight NCAA Tournament and win a first-round game. When you are Montana, that’s the top of the mountain. Sure, we wanted to beat BC but we were already on top of the world.”
In the second round, Montana hung tough with Craig Smith, Jared Dudley and the fourth-seeded Eagles. BC led by two at halftime, 32-30.
Smith, a 2006 All-America, was a bruising physical specimen, a handful for anyone in college hoops that year. Dudley won ACC Player of the Year honors in 2007 and is still enjoying a productive NBA career. The duo proved to be too much for Montana to handle. Smith scored 22 points and grabbed 16 rebounds, Dudley scored 20 points and grabbed seven rebounds and BC held UM to 36.4 percent shooting as the Eagles won the second half by 11 and the game 69-56.
Strait: “A team like Boston College had several high profile NBA guys. They were very athletic. We didn’t match up with them as well as we did against Nevada. But it’s all part of the deal. We were just as excited to get to that next round. Looking back, I don’t think there was anything we could have done different. It was a two-point game at halftime. We just ended up losing by 12 but they were a great team. I was proud of how we competed.”
Ten years later, the victory over Nevada stands as a moment in time, the last time a Big Sky team put on Cinderella’s slipper, if even for a game. Since 1975, the league has won just four games, none have come in the last 10 years and the 2006 win is the only one since the turn of the century.
Tinkle, who took Montana to three NCAA Tournaments in four seasons as UM’s head coach before leaving to Corvallis : “It’s all seeding and matchups. We got a decent seed the year we drew Syracuse (a No. 13 in 2013) but they lost in overtime to Louisville in the Big East championship game, so they were hot. We had a good seed but it was a terrible matchup for us. The Big Sky usually gets both. They draw a poor seed and get a tough matchup, which is why there hasn’t been very many upsets.
“If you look at reasons why, it’s hard for so many coaches in the league to schedule tough games and win them. I think one of the reasons we got the seed we did this year at Oregon State (No. 7) was the strength of schedule, the non-league opponents and how well our league did. It’s tough in those jobs in the Big Sky to find good teams that will play you at home at all and to win a bunch of those games is even harder. If you can find them, you have a chance. That year (2006), we put a good schedule together of teams that ended up being better down the road that we beat in the non-league and that helped us get the 12-5 matchup and there is upsets every year in that game.”
Dlouhy: “I still follow the league and I still follow Tinkle because I go up to Washington games or down to Oregon State games and I can say I really think that we just had more talent. We had seven or eight guys who could have been the top players on other teams in the Big Sky that came together to play for Montana because we wanted to win. I still watch the Big Sky and there are a lot of good players still but the talent is more spread out throughout the teams.”
Matthews: “It’s something we can hold up. Whenever it comes around, we have that on everyone. (Former UM guard) Anthony (Johnson) is from where I’m from. I see (former Griz star) Will Cherry out here in Germany, (former Griz forward) Derek Selvig too. We always get into it and it’s like, ‘You guys didn’t win the game. You guys went but you didn’t win a game.’ We won and nobody can take that away from us.”
As happens so often in basketball, reaching the apex led to a domino effect and the group would not taste similar success again. Criswell and Matthews graduated. Krystkowiak left to take an assistant job with the Milwaukee Bucks and was an NBA head coach by 2007. He took the Utah job in 2011 and has led the Utes to back-to-back 2nd-place finishes in the Pac 12 and a No. 3 seed in this week’s NCAA Tournament.
With Krystkowiak gone, Tinkle took over as the head coach of his alma mater. But the role change was drastic, going from the always-positive mentor who worked extensively with posts like Strait to being the head coach in charge of the entire ship. Krystkowiak’s departure also prompted Brad Huse to leave the staff. Huse took the head coaching job at Montana State, a post he held for eight up and down seasons.
Strait: “It was tough. You go to the tournament two times in a row, the expectations grow for everyone. I came into my junior year thinking that I would accept nothing less than the same or a better year. I got a lot of great support from the community of Missoula. It was definitely hard to see Larry go. I can’t blame him for it and he made the right decision based on where he is at now. But it was a tough transition for the team at the time because we had gotten established that first couple of years and then he moved on, Coach Huse moved on. The staff kind of broke apart. I don’t think it had too much to do with how things panned out but we had a ton of talent. That performance that first couple of years definitely helped our recruiting class.
“We might’ve even had too much talent my junior and senior year. Having those expectations sky high and coming off the work we did the first couple of years, it’s tough in any conference to win three or four years in a row. There’s not very many teams who make it to the Dance three or four years in a row except for the high major teams. I was grateful for all four years. Tinks is a great coach. He’s a big part of why I came to Montana. He took over his first couple of years and he was figuring things out as a head coach, trying to establish himself in a new role and with the expectations being so high, what can you do? I think he did a great job with what he had.”
As a junior and senior, Strait received constant double teams. He averaged 15 points per game his junior year and 13.3 his senior year, never approaching the consistent scoring of his sophomore season. In Tinkle’s first year at the helm for his alma mater, Montana went 17-15, finishing third in the Big Sky and losing to NAU in the semifinals of the Big Sky Tournament. The following season, Montana went 14-16, finishing fourth in the league and losing in the first round of the Big Sky Tournament to Idaho State. Strait and his classmates would not sniff March Madness again.
Tinkle would approach the heights of Krystkowiak’s Griz by the end of his eight seasons in Missoula. His Griz won back-to-back regular-season Big Sky titles in 2012 and 2013 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament in 2010, 2012 and 2013.
Tinkle: “We talked about trying to get back there and try to make even more noise. The hard part when I took over was we lost Larry, we lost Brad Huse to Montana State and we lost our two all-league guards in Virgil and Kevin. We really had to start from scratch. But we went back to where we went three out of four years.
“Certainly in the recruiting pitches, we used that we do things the right way at Montana, the total college experience which a lot of places don’t have and we were able to attract the players we did, guys like Brian Qvale, Derek Selvig. Those early ones like Brian and Derek were well aware of what that team did in the NCAA Tournament. They actually turned away from pretty big schools to come and be a part of something at Montana because they thought it was such a special place.”
On Wednesday, Montana will celebrate the 10th anniversary of a landmark win in a place it just spent the last week. UM won two games in Reno to advance to the Big Sky Tournament championship before falling just short. The Grizzlies decided to extend their season, accepting a CBI bid and return to the Biggest Little City in the World to play the Wolf Pack in hopes of prolonging the career of Martin Breunig, the team’s lone senior.
On Friday, Weber State will make its 10th NCAA Tournament appearance, including its third under 10th-year coach Randy Rahe. The Wildcats are the No. 15 seed and will play No. 2 Xavier in St. Louis at 7:20 p.m. on Friday night. WSU will look to snap a losing streak that is now at 10 games for Big Sky teams in the Big Dance.
Strait: “I’m wondering over the last few years when it’s going to happen again. Montana has gotten close a few times. If someone is going to do it again, I’d like it to be Montana to do it. It will happen. There are a lot of good players who come through the Big Sky, good coaches who have been around a long time at good programs. I think it’s just a matter of time.
“All of us Montana guys, we still talk about how much fun that was. Most of us would agree that was the greatest moment of our entire career. It was a pretty special moment within all we accomplished and something that we hold on to forever.”
Photos courtesy of University of Montana Athletics. All Rights Reserved.