“It’s lights, camera, action,” Montana junior Will Cherry said following the Grizzlies’ 57-47 bloodbath of a win over rival Montana State on Saturday night in front of 7,003 fans at Dahlberg Arena.
The Grizzlies’ 11th straight win – and 17th in their last 18 – pushed their mark to school-best 14-1 in the Big Sky Conference (22-6 overall), setting up a showdown with 14-1 Weber State for the league’s regular-season championship on Tuesday in Missoula. The winner hosts the league semifinals and championship on March 6-7. Weber State won the first meeting 80-64 on Jan. 14 in Ogden, Utah.
The Cats, meanwhile, dropped their eighth straight to fall to 6-9 in league, 11-16 overall, but backed into the postseason as a result of Saturday’s other games that saw Portland State beat Eastern Washington and Sacramento State beat Idaho State. They’ll be the sixth seed and play at Portland State in the quarterfinals.
It wasn’t a thing of beauty but the Griz made just enough plays in the second half to keep from sweating it out in the final seconds.
Art Steward, one of four seniors honored on senior night, led the Griz with 14 points. Cherry scored 11 of his 13 after intermission and sparked a run that gave the Griz a little breathing room. Senior Derek Selvig added 11 points and sophomore Kareem Jamar had 10 points and 10 rebounds.
It took all of their efforts to hold off a Montana State team bent on slowing the game down to make the Griz work on defense.
“We didn’t help it, though,” Cherry said. “We normally come out hot, especially at home. We weren’t making the easy plays. We had too many turnovers, especially between me and (Selvig). We can’t let what they do frustrate us, but it did tonight. They slowed the game down and made us play defense for the whole 35-second clock. We like to get out in transition and get easy buckets, but it really didn’t start happening until the second half.”
No it didn’t. The Griz limited the Cats to 32 percent shooting in the first half, but the game was tied 21-21 at the break.
“I thought our guys played disciplined,” MSU coach Brad Huse said. “Obviously, we were struggling to make baskets, but so were they. One of the things you don’t want to happen is to get down big early here. I’m not sure we’re built to get into a scenario where we have to make those kinds of comebacks against a team like this. I thought we competed pretty hard and pretty smart.”
The complexion of the game began to change when the Griz put together a 15-4 run that turned a 27-25 advantage into a 42-29 bulge. Steward began the run with an inside bucket and a 3-pointer.
Cherry then seized the moment, taking a pass from Jamar in transition and pulling up at the 3-point line for a trey that gave the Griz a 36-27 lead. Moments later he hit another trey, then his steal set up a 3-pointer by Selvig that gave the Griz their biggest lead with 10:57 to play.
“They did a nice job of not giving him great looks and a nice job of clamping him in transition where he can get some things happening,” Montana coach Wayne Tinkle said of MSU’s defense on Cherry. “I talked to him in the second half and said, ’Don’t get frustrated because you’re going to make some plays when we need them most.’
“He’s done that. After he missed his first couple, then he pulls up there, I was like, ‘Aaahhh … great shot.’ He works his tail off so he earns opportunities like that.”
But behind sophomore Jeff Budinich, who led the Cats with 11 points off the bench, MSU rallied with a 13-3 run of its own, closing within 45-42 with 7:06 to play. Budinich hit back-to-back treys in the run, which was capped by a pull-up jumper by freshman Michael Dison.
The Cats were still within two at 47-45 on another trey from Budinich, before the Griz inched away down the stretch, holding the Cats to two points over the final 5:47. MSU missed 10 of its last 11 shots.
“I was proud of our guys,” Huse said. “One of the things we’re talking about is keep looking forward. We looked like a team tonight. We’ve had some ups and downs that have forced us to adjust. We lost at the end of the night but I was proud of the way our guys competed.”
The Griz, who shot 49 percent from the floor, limited the Cats to 33 percent shooting.
“We defended our butts off,” Tinkle said. “We always talk about not getting frustrated offensively. If we defend and rebound we can weather anything.”
Tinkle said he’ll wait a day before starting to think about the matchup against Weber State.
“I can’t start thinking about Weber or I won’t sleep,” he said.
Cherry, though, has been looking forward to the matchup for a while.
“It’s going to be exciting,” Cherry said. “All the lights are going to be on that one. Everybody in the Big Sky will probably stop their game to watch that game. Everbody’s been anticipating it. When we played NAU I heard their head coach talk to Coach Tinkle — and this was before we were playing them — and he said, ‘You guys have a monster coming in here on Tuesday.’ Everybody’s anticipating that game. Like I say, it’s going to be lights, camera, action. When the ball tips off, it’s going down.”
NOTES: With his 13 points, Cherry moved into 15th place on the school’s career scoring list with 1,130 points, passing Anthony Johnson (1,124 from 2008-10). He’s one point behind No. 14 Matt Kempfert (1992-95). … Montana won the rebounding battle 39-34 . … The Cats leading active scorer, Christian Moon, scored just six points. … MSU’s leading scorer for the season, Xavier Blount, is out for the remainder of the season due to injuries sustained in a fight.
|MONTANA STATE (47)|
|Halftime score: Montana 21, Montana State 21.|
|3-point goals: MSU 5-19 (Budinich 3-7, Singleton 1-1, Reid 1-7, Dison 0-1, Moon 0-3), UM 5-15 (Cherry 2-5, Steward 1-1, Selvig 1-2, Stockton 1-2, Ward 0-1, Jamar 0-4).|
|Turnovers: MSU 11 (Fall 4), UM 15 (Selvig 5, Cherry 5).|
|Blocked shots: MSU 2 (Fall, Moon), UM 4 (4 with 1).|
|Steals: MSU 6 (Allou 2, Moon 2), UM 5 (Selvig 2, Cherry 2).|
|Officials: Jon Stigliano, Dennis Flannery Jr., Gregory Nixon.|
Sports editor Bob Meseroll can be reached at 523-5265 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.