Montana, the team picked to finish eighth in the Big Sky Conference, held a nine-point lead over fellow co-champion Eastern Washington with 4:14 to play in the league championship game.
The bottom fell out in the blink of an eye.
The Eagles closed the game with a 17-4 run to take a 69-65 win over the Griz in front of 7,026 mostly disappointed fans – Eastern sent a large contingent to Missoula – Saturday night at Dahlberg Arena.
Eastern (26-8) denied the Griz (20-12) a third trip to the NCAA Tournament in the last four seasons and will go to the Big Dance instead. The Eagles will find out who they play when the bracket is announced Sunday at 4 p.m. on CBS.
Montana's season is not over. As the league co-champion, the Griz will receive an automatic berth in the NIT. Those pairings will also be announced Sunday and the university has put in a bid to host a game on either Tuesday or Wednesday.
"I’m proud of this team, we’ve come a long way," said first-year Griz coach Travis DeCuire. "No one expected them to be in this moment. It’s hard to get all the way to the last game and not get the victory. All due respect to Eastern Washington, they seized the moment when the opportunity was there and we didn’t."
The Eagles seized it with ruthless efficiency.
Martin Breunig, who led the Griz with 23 points and a career-high 17 rebounds, converted a layup to give Montana a 61-52 lead with 4:14 to play. Eastern responded with an inside bucket from Venky Jois to cut the margin to seven, then called a timeout.
"We were down 11, looked dead in the water," EWU coach Jim Hayford said. "We called time out, but we’ve been there before. We said, ‘All right, let’s do this. Let’s go out and play to win and put the pressure on them to get them to maybe start playing not to lose.'
"That energy helped us get a little more offensive efficiency and the ball started going in. … The next thing you know all the pressure shifted."
It shifted with the help of the Eagles' full-court press, which turned the Griz over twice while Tyler Harvey hit a trey and drove to the hoop for a deuce, and Felix Von Hofe nailed a 3-pointer to give Eastern a 62-61 lead. In the space of 123 seconds, the lead Montana worked 38 minutes to establish had evaporated.
"A couple of stats that stand out: 61 percent (shooting) for them in the second half, 13 turnovers for us," DeCuire said. "Obviously when we got to about that 5½-minute mark was when we kind of came unraveled against the pressure a little bit and they took advantage of it. And once those guys got a little confidence their legs came back and shots that were hitting the front of the rim started going in. All due respect to that Eastern Washington team, they played well."
Montana regained the lead on a driving layup by Jordan Gregory, but Drew Brandon answered with a 14-foot jumper. After a miss by Gregory, Harvey stroked a pull-up jumper that he turned into a three-point play and a 67-63 Eastern lead with 43 seconds to play. That was all she wrote for the Griz.
"We had some letdowns defensively and they took advantage of it," Griz senior Jordan Gregory said. "They started jacking up the pressure and we had a lot of offensive possessions where we didn’t get good shots. That’s what happens."
Harvey, the nation's leading scorer who finished with 18 points, credited Jois with flipping the switch.
"We came into that huddle with about 4 minutes left and Venky just fired us up and we realized what moment we were in," Harvey said. "We’ve worked a long time for this moment right here."
Senior Mike Weisner came off the bench to back up Breunig's 23 points with a career-high 18 in what might have been his last game in Dahlberg Arena. Gregory added 16, but the rest of the team combined for just eight points.
DeCuire said he's looking forward to coaching this team for at least one more game.
"Definitely. In November and December, we didn’t look like a postseason team, so for us to move on we just re-establish some goals tomorrow and try to lengthen this season and add some wins to our belt and make this a learning experience for everyone who has an opportunity to return next year," he said. "For the seniors, we try to give them another experience with some postseason wins."
NOTES: The Griz fell to 9-8 in Big Sky title games. ... Eastern beat Montana for the first time in five tries in the postseason. ... Brandon backed up Harvey with 16 points and freshman Bogdan Bliznyuk came off the bench to chip in 13.