“Super Sophs” is kind of mundane.
“Kiddie Corps” doesn’t reflect the maturity of the group.
Montana sophomore guard Keron DeShields has a name he likes better for himself and cohorts Jordan Gregory, Kevin Henderson and Mike Weisner.
“I like the ‘Fab Four,’ ” DeShields said with a hearty laugh. “I like that.”
Call them anything you’d like, but be sure to include winners as an adjective. Each of the Montana Grizzlies’ four sophomores played a key role in their run to the regular-season Big Sky championship. They’ll begin their quest for a second straight Big Sky tournament title – and a third trip to the NCAA tournament in four seasons – when they face Northern Colorado on Friday at 8 p.m. in the semifinals.
Where would the Griz be without their sophomores? Very possibly in Ogden, Utah, playing a quarterfinal game on Weber State’s home floor.
• Henderson hit a game-winning 3-point shot in the final seconds in a nonconference win over San Diego back in December.
• Weisner calmly drained the game-tying 3-pointer against Montana State in Missoula in January, sending the game to overtime where the Griz prevailed.
• DeShields scored a career-best 17 points in a late-season road win at Montana State with starting point guard Will Cherry on the bench with a foot injury.
• Two nights later in Cedar City, Utah, Gregory hit the game-tying 3-pointer in the waning moments to send a game against Southern Utah into overtime, where the Griz again won.
“We were needed at big moments of the year,” DeShields said. “This wouldn’t be possible if we hadn’t had a collective effort with all of us stepping up at different times. We’re proud of that.”
Take each of those plays away and the Griz are 20-9 overall, 17-3 in the Big Sky, rather than 23-6, 19-1 and hosting the league tournament for the second straight season.
“There’s always a flip side,” Montana coach Wayne Tinkle said. “There are some close games – I think back to South Dakota State – that we let slip through. I really think our guys have earned those victories through their effort and their focus. You hear people say the more you work and the more focused you are the luckier you seem to get. Our guys earned those victories.
“Now, we do know that sometimes breaks go against you. Call it fate. Every team that has a championship season, it seems like there are a couple of moments of truth that go their way. You hope to develop a belief. Our guys believe that no matter what’s going on, they’re going to win the game. Boy is that true about this group.”
Part of that belief stems from the confidence both the coaching staff and the older players have in the young guns.
“Overall, it’s a quiet confidence; they believe in themselves and their abilities,” Tinkle said. “The upperclassmen don’t treat them in a way that they feel they shouldn’t be there because of their youth. When the opportunity arises they all think they’re as deserving and worthy of making that play as anybody.”
Gregory, with 37 treys, and Weisner, with 36, are the leading 3-point shooters on the team and each converts at better than 43 percent.
“(Weisner) knows he’s a shooter; we want him to shoot,” Tinkle said. “In order for him to stay on the floor he has to defend inside and out and rebound the ball for us. He’s really gotten better for us in those areas.”
“Jordan Gregory is probably one of our more confident players and that’s saying something at his age,” Tinkle said of the Pueblo, Colo., product who was named honorable mention all-Big Sky this week. “He’s very solid; seldom do we worry about what he’s going to do when he has the ball in his hands. He’s become a very good defender as well and we know he’s a clutch free-throw shooter (90 percent in league).”
Henderson is shooting 44 percent from 3-point range and his athletic ability is put to good use on defense, especially when the Griz go to their three-quarter court trap.
“Kevin’s an energy guy,” Tinkle said. “He plays his tail off. He can make some things happen. Sometimes he gets himself in trouble by trying to do a little too much, but he’s a weapon at both ends of the floor.”
DeShields averages 7.1 points a game and has filled in admirably when Cherry has been out.
“Keron is ever evolving as the point guard,” Tinkle said. “He can make plays off the dribble. He hasn’t shot it quite as well as he was early, but there’s not one guy on the team who puts in more work than he does, especially when we’re not around. He gets into the gym early and stays late.”
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Even though the Griz didn’t find out who they would play until late Thursday night, their work week hasn’t been that unusual.
“The first couple of days of the week we kind of work on ourselves anyhow,” Tinkle said. “We don’t dive into our opponent until the day before. That’ll be a little different because we still won’t know who our opponent is. Hopefully this will help us get better in some areas where we need to, both offensively and defensively. The big thing is it’s going to be a team we played sometime in the last month, so it shouldn’t be too foreign.”
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Cherry will be ready to go for Friday night’s semifinal.
“Will feels good,” Tinkle said. “He wanted to go full in practice (Tuesday) and (athletic trainer Dennis Murphy) and I had pre-arranged that he’d do half of it. At the end we had a four-minute scrimmage and I said, ‘Will, you get to play a minute.’ And that brought out a few jeers.
“He was a little sore after Saturday, but I think most of that was probably not doing anything for two and a half weeks. He’ll be ready to go Friday night.”
Tinkle has nothing but praise for how his senior has stepped up his leadership role, especially with fellow senior Mathias Ward on the bench with a season-ending injury.
“His leadership has been unbelievable since the Davidson game,” Tinkle said. “We’ve seen everything we’ve been asking for the last few years – in timeouts during games he’s engaged and he waits until we’re done to grab one of the young guys and give them a little advice, patting them on the back. It’s no surprise that after sitting out as long as he did that he played well because he stayed engaged.”
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Last weekend was pretty remarkable for the entire Tinkle family.
On Saturday, Tres and his Missoula Hellgate Knights wrapped up the State AA championship while the Griz were busy earning their Big Sky regular-season title. On Sunday, Joslyn Tinkle and the Stanford Cardinal won the Pac 12 championship. And on Monday, Elle Tinkle and Gonzaga earned the West Coast Conference’s NCAA berth by winning the league tournament.
“It was unbelievable,” Tinkle said. “What a whirlwind. From our regular-season championship to Hellgate’s, to Stanford and Gonzaga. It’s pretty cool. What’s neat has been the outpouring from friends and supporters to say how cool that is. It’s something that we’ll remember for a long time. It sure would be nice to follow it up with our own tournament championship.”