OGDEN, Utah - Montana's present is still its future, for a least one more game. Montana's future made the most of the present.
Senior guard Anthony Johnson and freshman guard Will Cherry made big plays down the stretch to lift Montana past Northern Colorado 68-63 in a semifinal of the Big Sky Conference men's basketball tournament Tuesday at Dee Events Center.
The Griz (21-9) will face host and regular-season champion Weber State (20-9) in Wednesday's title game at 7 p.m. (ESPN2). The winner receives the league's automatic berth into the NCAA tournament.
The Griz built and squandered all of a 14-point, second-half lead before stopping the bleeding long enough for Johnson and Cherry to step to the fore.
Johnson finished with 19 points against the league's Defensive Player of the Year, Yahosh Bonner, and Cherry added 10 more, but none bigger than his deuce with 23.4 seconds to play and the Griz clinging to a one-point lead.
UNC's Will Figures made a pair of treys and Chris Kaba added another as the Bears (24-7) quickly diced Montana's lead to shreds. After drawing within 59-58 on the trio of treys, the Bears grabbed the lead, 63-62, on another by Bonner with 1:46 to play.
But Bonner fouled Johnson at the other end and a pair of free throws put the Griz back on top, 64-63 with 1:21 to play. After a miss by Figures, Vassy Banny grabbed the defensive board. UNC coach Tad Boyle had a problem with that entire sequence.
"We're up one with (1:46) to go and we're a great defensive team and we have the best defender in the league," Boyle said, after first giving credit to the Griz for playing a great game. "Unfortunately, it was determined at the free-throw line.
"Yahosh's foul late in the game: 1:23 left in the game, I like the players to determine the game. There was a lot of pushing and shoving and flopping going on. Disappointed the way it had to end like that. We had a chance at the end, Will had the ball in the lane, didn't get a foul call, but that's the way basketball goes."
After working time off the clock, Cherry made his big play.
"The plan had been to get the ball to AJ," Cherry said. "But being the good defender that (Bonner) is, he took AJ away. I almost slipped, but when I got up I saw the clock was at five seconds. I went left, but they know I go left a lot, so I spun back and shot it over Figures.
"Since I first started watching NCAA basketball, I dreamed of big shots like this."
That gave the Griz a 66-63 lead. As the Bears looked for a potential tying shot, Johnson picked off a pass, steamed down court and was fouled by Kaba with 11.4 seconds to play. His free throws sealed the outcome.
"I was reading it the whole time," Johnson said. "That's a Will Cherry-type of play. I was channeling him on that play."
And Cherry might have been channeling Johnson on his shot in the lane.
"The Alpha and the Omega here, two guards, one in his last year, one in his first year, stepping to the forefront with the help of the supporting cast," Montana coach Wayne Tinkle said, pointing to Johnson and Cherry in the postgame news conference.
"We've been talking to AJ about handing over the torch to the young fella - at some point. We're still hoping it's somewhere down the road."
It looked as though the Griz might have an easy time of it after pulling away from a 33-32 halftime advantage. A 12-3 burst gave the Griz a 57-43 lead with 8:00 to play. Johnson had six points in the burst, including a 3-pointer, Cherry had a layup, Ryan Staudacher hit a trey and Brian Qvale connected on a hook shot.
But UNC put together its own 17-3 run to knot the game at 60-60 with 3:45 left. Figures had the two treys midway through the run and closed it with a nice backdoor layup.
"Our team has great character," Tinkle said. "We've had a lot of close games; we've won a couple and we've lost a couple. In that under four-minute timeout when it was tied after we'd had a 14-point lead, nobody panicked. Our senior captain (Johnson) said we have to go out there and win these last 3 1/2 minutes. ... That drew everyone on page."
"When they made their run, I didn't even blink," Johnson said. "I had faith in my team. I knew we were going to win the game."
Staudacher added 10 points for the Griz, who owned a 36-25 advantage on the boards. Derek Selvig and Banny led that category with eight apiece.
The Griz now have their sights set on getting back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006.
"I was asked to sum up the season in one word and the word I picked was destiny," Johnson said. "We're in this moment for a reason."
NOTES: The Griz scored 20 second-chance points to nine for UNC. ... Raason Young played eight minutes in the first half before suffering a leg or foot injury. He did not return and there was no word on his status for the title game. ... This will be Montana's 13th appearance in the Big Sky title game. The Griz are 6-6 in championship games, winning in 1991-92, 1997, 2002, 2005-06. They lost in 1978, 1980-81, 1984, 1986 and 1995. ... Montana and Weber State have squared off four times in the league title game. Weber State leads 3-1, having won in 1978, 1980 and 1995. Montana won in 2005.
Mins FG-A FT-A Reb PF A Pts
f-McGills 4 1-2 0-0 3 3 0 2
c-Qvale 31 4-7 1-3 6 3 1 9
g-Staudacher 29 4-5 0-0 1 0 1 10
g-Cherry 32 4-12 2-4 2 1 4 10
g-Johnson 36 5-12 7-8 3 2 3 19
Selvig 21 3-8 0-0 8 2 0 6
Taylor 16 2-3 0-0 1 1 1 6
Young 8 1-3 0-0 2 2 1 2
Banny 23 1-1 2-2 8 1 1 4
Totals 200 25-53 12-17 36 15 12 68
NORTHERN COLORADO (63)
Mins FG-A FT-A Reb PF A Pts
f-Kaba 29 3-6 2-4 2 1 2 9
f-Kingman 19 2-4 1-2 2 3 0 6
c-Montgomery 30 3-7 2-2 5 2 0 8
g-Figures 36 7-17 5-6 5 3 5 23
g-Bonner 32 2-4 0-0 1 4 1 5
Lloyd 22 1-6 0-0 2 0 1 2
Brereton 3 0-0 0-0 0 1 0 0
Proctor 29 5-7 0-0 7 3 1 10
Totals 200 23-51 10-14 25 17 10 63
Halftime score: Montana 33, UNC 32.
3-point goals: UM 6-17 (Staudacher 2-3, Taylor 2-3, Johnson 2-5, Selvig 0-1, Young 0-2, Cherry 0-3), UNC 7-18 (Figures 4-8, Kaba 1-1, Kingman 1-3, Bonner 1-3, Lloyd 0-3).
Turnovers: UM 14 (Johnson 5), UNC 10 (Kaba 4).
Blocked shots: UM 5 (Qvale 3), UNC 2 (Kaba, Proctor).
Steals: UM 7 (Johnson 3), UNC 7 (Figures 2, Bonner 2).
Officials: Bob Scofield, Chris Rastatter, Ruben Ramos.
Sports editor Bob Meseroll can be reached at 523-5265 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.