Kareem Jamar collected his second MVP trophy in less than a week, then turned to Will Cherry and gave him a long, tight embrace.
“There’s only one word to describe Will Cherry: winner,” Jamar said.
That goes for the rest of the Montana men’s basketball team and coaching staff as well. The Griz wrapped up their second straight Big Sky Conference tournament title – and third in four years – with a hard-fought 67-64 win over tough-luck Weber State in front of 7,172 raucous fans Saturday night at Dahlberg Arena.
Montana (25-6), ranked 13th in the mid-major poll, will find out who it plays in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Sunday at 4 p.m. when CBS announces the bracket in its selection show.
Jamar led the Griz with 20 points and Cherry added 18, all but three in the second half. But it was a classic Jamar-to-Cherry assist that pretty much sealed the deal.
The Griz were nursing a 59-57 lead with less than a minute to play when, with the shot clock winding down, Jamar drove into the lane, then kicked a pass out to Cherry on the perimeter. Cherry had missed all three of his 3-point attempts to that point, but drained the one that mattered for a 62-57 lead with 42 seconds to play.
“I knew he was coming to me,” Cherry said. “That was a pivotal point in the game. He always tells me to be ready to shoot because he was carrying the load. When he drove it, I saw him coming. It was like I read his mind and I was ready for it. When I let it go, I knew it was good.”
Weber, which has been on the wrong end of all three of Montana’s title-game victories in the last four years, answered with a put-back by Frank Otis to cut the gap to 62-59 with 27 seconds remaining. But the Griz made 5 of 6 free throws from that point on to secure the win and bring confetti raining from the rafters.
“There’s never a doubt with us,” said regular-season MVP Jamar, who was named tournament MVP for the second straight season, joining just three others with that distinction. “We’ve been through so much adversity, we knew we had to dig deeper. That shows true character. We have the heart of a champion.”
The Griz led for much of the first half, but found themselves tied with the Wildcats 34-34 at intermission. Weber State’s biggest lead was five points twice, the last time at 47-42 with 12:41 left. Cherry, who had been on the bench with three fouls, came back into the game at that point. He scored on two tough drives to give the Griz a 52-50 lead with 7:28 to play, a lead they would never relinquish.
“When you learn how to find ways to win, that is something the guys continue to believe in, just like some teams learn how to lose and it becomes contagious,” said Montana coach Wayne Tinkle, who has guided the Griz to 38 wins in their last 40 games against Big Sky teams and 31 straight at home. “Weber made a great run in the second half and we had a timeout, and none of them had a look of fear or doubt in their eyes. They believe.”
It was a tough pill to swallow for Weber State (26-6), which has lost six games against league teams over the past two seasons, four to the Griz.
“These last two seasons are probably their two best programs in school history,” Weber coach Randy Rahe said. “We ran into a little bit of a buzz saw these last two years but they’ve earned it.
“This one is hard. It hurts. It’s going to hurt because our kids invest into our program. I thought they competed admirably tonight, we just came up probably one or two plays short.”
The Griz were humbled by the Wildcats the last time they played, an 87-63 loss in Ogden, Utah. Otis and Kyle Tresnak, Weber’s big men, had their way with the Griz in that game. Not so Saturday night, Tresnak and Otis combined for just 14 points in the title game. Davion Berry, Scott Bamforth and Joel Bolomboy led the Wildcats this time with 12 points apiece.
“Our big boys fought the touch a lot better and we had better pressure on the ball to make those post entries tougher,” Tinkle said of his interior defense. “When we got in foul trouble in the second half we made the decision to go zone and plug it up in there. That was a key in the second half.”
Griz players and coaches agreed that this trip to the Big Dance will be especially sweet, given the trials the team faced this season. A recruit the Griz expected to be their starting center did not meet academic requirements and never played. Cherry broke his right foot in September, missed the first seven games, then re-injured the foot with just four league games remaining. The team’s leading scorer, senior Mathias Ward, suffered a foot injury on Feb. 16 that required season-ending surgery.
“I already had a speech prepared when I came to the gym win or lose,” Tinkle said. “I was going to talk about if things didn’t go our way, the season was still a success, an unbelievable success when you look at how far this team has come and everything they dealt with and how they just deflected it and continued to find ways to finish. I shared that with a couple of people who are very, very close to me, but I said, ‘I’m not counting them out.’ Never have they let us down. … This one is unbelievable.
“God has truly blessed our program and family. I feel blessed and humbled about what we achieved.”
NOTES: This is Montana’s 10th trip to the NCAA tournament. … In addition to Jamar and Cherry, sophomore Jordan Gregory was named to the all-tournament team. He was 3 for 4 from 3-point range and finished with 12 points. … Weber’s Berry and Troy Huff of North Dakota were also named to the team.
|Halftime score: Montana 34, Weber State 34.|
|3-point goals: WS 6-18 (Berry 1-5, Bamforth 3-6, Richardson 1-5, Wheelwright 1-2). UM 8-20 (Coleman 1-1, Jamar 1-5, Cherry 1-4, Gregory 3-4, Deshields 0-1, Weisner 2-5).|
|Turnovers: WS 13 (Berry 5), UM 10 (Jamar 6).|
|Blocked shots: WS 3 (Bolomboy 2), UM 2 (Weisner, Martin).|
|Steals: WS 5 (Bamforth 2), UM 7 (Cherry 3).|
|Officials: Chris Rastatter, Brett Nansel, Wilson Holland.|