OGDEN, Utah -- In the late 1970s when Neil McCarthy, a former boxer, was coaching Weber State to three straight NCAA experiences, he brought the Wildcats to Missoula and into a frenzied atmosphere energized by a student section known affectionately as "The Zoo."
The Zoo was particularly vile toward Weber State while the Grizzlies on the court were among a handful of teams trying to end the Wildcats' reign over the conference.
As the story goes, McCarthy was walking off the court toward the visiting locker room when he was hemmed in by members of The Zoo. Fans and the Weber coach said a few things before McCarthy turned around and knocked Mike Pantalione clean off his feet. He then returned to coach the second half of what became a 77-62 Montana win.
"Times have changed," said Blaine Taylor, who was a witness to the skirmish before he went on to a successful career as a Montana player and coach.
Times have certainly changed, but the rivalry between Montana and Weber State has lasted. It latest through Weber's 1978 conference tournament title in Missoula that broke the hearts of former Griz coaches Mike Montgomery and Stew Morrill. It lasted through Montana's run of three titles in four years that kept former Wildcats guard Damian Lillard without a title during his illustrious time in Ogden.
And it will add another chapter Saturday night at 7 when the two teams meet in the Dee Events Center with the inside track to the Big Sky regular-season title on line. Montana, in search of its first regular-season win in Ogden in a dozen years, and Weber will tip off with both teams tied atop the standings at 13-2.
But that's nothing new for this duel. Since the Big Sky's inception in 1963, the two teams have produced more first-team all-conference players, more conference wins and more tournament titles than any other Big Sky teams. Seven times they have met in the tournament championship with Montana walking away with four wins.
"Weber State is like we’re always (Nos.) 1 and 2 so you’re playing for the best team in the conference and that always brings a little more extra energy. Those games are special," remembered former Montana guard Kareem Jamar, who was part of teams that beat Weber for titles in 2012 and 2013.
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"I disliked (Montana) the most when I was in college," Lillard told the Missoulian earlier this week.
Lillard was a sophomore when the Wildcats won the regular season in 2010 and took a commanding halftime lead over the Grizzlies before Anthony Johnson scored 35 second-half points, including Montana's final 21, as the Griz stunned Weber 66-65. He watched as Montana beat Weber the next year in the semifinals and he was in Missoula when the Griz blasted the Wildcats 85-66 in Dahlberg.
"I think they were the school that gave me the hardest time," Lillard said.
For Lillard, the rivalry was personal because Anthony Johnson's offensive prowess led many to believe AJ was the conference's best guard and not the future NBA All-Star. Within the team battle, there was also a rivalry with Montana guard Will Cherry, who grew up with Lillard in Oakland.
"When you’ve got your leaders going against each other, playing the same position, anything can happen and it can get pretty feisty out there," Jamar said.
It's an apt way to describe a tug-of-war that lasted through McCarthy, and the heartbreak in Missoula, and Taylor and Lillard's battles with Montana's trio of guards and will continue through Saturday's meeting in Ogden with no signs of slowing down.
"They're always good and we like to think we've been OK," Weber coach Randy Rahe said. "There's been a lot of big games and a lot of fun games. Montana has been pretty good here and anytime you have that and anytime you play it's kind of heated up the rivalry."
Added Montana coach Travis DeCuire, "Some guys it brings the best out of them and others it’s intimidating. We’re going to find out a lot about our guys when we get there."