The week of March 12, 2006, when the NCAA tournament brackets were set and the Montana Grizzlies drew the highest seed in the history of the Big Sky Conference, it was already determined who the university's national media stars were supposed to be: Jim O'Day, then the university's athletics director, and Jim Foley, its executive vice president, were invited to come onto an ESPN morning show filmed on the school's campus.
After some off-camera issues, O'Day and Foley did the school a service. Foley discussed Montana's growing student body and the professors the school entrusted to educate it. O'Day praised the basketball team that was preparing for its second consecutive NCAA appearance.
But the two administrators' time in the spotlight didn't last long. Two days later, the very basketball team O'Day gushed to a national audience about pulled off an upset that surprised some of college basketball's best known analysts, but did little more than affirm what the Griz already thought was going to happen.
"The first thing we thought when we saw that 5-12 matchup was 'We're going to win this game,'" said Jordan Hasquet, who was a versatile redshirt freshman forward for a 24-win Montana team. "There was quite a celebration at Paradise (Falls) when it popped up on the screen."
As NCAA tournaments go, the 5-12 is one of the most ripe for upsets. That year it sprung two lower seeds into the second round. But when the seeds were released five days before the Griz neat Nevada 87-79 to earn the school's first tournament win in 31 years, national analysts weren't privy to picking the Griz; if a 12 was going to move on, it was more likely to be Texas A&M or Utah State.
"Nevada was very hot coming into this tournament," ESPN basketball analyst Dick Vitale said the night of Montana's win. "I thought that was my big shock, that they were able to handle the way they did Nevada."
Nevada was riding a 14-game winning streak and had one of the strongest RPIs of any team in the country heading into the Big Dance. It also boasted 6-foot-11 Nick Fazekas, a double-double machine picked by the Dallas Mavericks as the 34th pick in that summer's NBA draft.
But Montana wasn't intimidated.
Virgil Matthews, who scored 20 points, including a key 3-pointer that began a late surge that quelled Nevada's mounting momentum, said the Wolf Pack presented the Griz with a favorable match-up despite a considerable size differential in the front court.
"We were excited," said Matthews, a do-it-all guard now playing in Germany. "I thought most of us thought we really thought we were going to win."
Andrew Strait, Montana's go-to guy on the block, gave up three inches to Fazekas, but he had shown throughout the season an ability to use angles and a series of post moves that made him difficult to defend regardless of opponent. Just a sophomore, he averaged 16.6 points and shot better than 60 percent from the floor.
In addition to Hasquet, a Missoula native who had little trouble adjusting to Division I, and Matthews, Strait had plenty of help. Kevin Criswell, one of the program's most prolific scorers, was a battle-tested senior and Bryan Ellis was a heady floor general.
And there was a wealth of shooting on the perimeter: Matthews hit nearly 50 percent of his shots from outside the arc, while Criswell was a shade over 41 percent. Then there was Matt Dlouhy, Matt Martin and Hasquet, who all hit better than 36 percent.
"Coach was really cool and gave us a lot of freedom," Matthews said of Larry Krystkowiak, who was in his penultimate game as Montana's coach that afternoon in Salt Lake City. "We weren't over-killed so we just felt like we had a green light kind of."
Prior to drawing the Wolf Pack that Selection Sunday, Montana had earned wins that bolstered its resume. In the fifth game of the season, the Griz routed Stanford in a raucous Dahlberg Arena. By the end of January, Montana was 16-3 and by the middle of March, it took an overtime game from Eastern Washington and then beat Northern Arizona on its home floor to win the Big Sky tournament for the second straight year.
As much as the wins put them in a position to play Nevada, it was a loss about a year prior that gave the Griz the experience they needed to get comfortable with the bright lights and tape recorders and TV cameras they experienced in the days leading up to playing the Wolf Pack.
In March 2005, Montana needed four minutes to score its first point as a 16th seed against Washington. It fell behind by 19 before battling back in an 88-77 loss.
"I said this year the story line doesn't need to be that we were up by seven at halftime and we let it slip away. The experience from last year helped us through this time," Krystkowiak told the national media, referencing both the lead Montana took after 20 minutes against Nevada and its loss to the Huskies.
Montana went ahead 2-0 on Strait's jumper 22 seconds into the game and never let the Wolf Pack experience a lead. Dlouhy assited the first of four Hasquet threes as the lead grew to 17-8. Three minutes later it was stretched to 21-10.
Fazekas got a layup to cut Montana's lead to 27-23 with a little over five minutes to go in the opening half. Much to the delight of the more than 500 maroon-clad fans who reportedly gobbled up the school's allotment of tickets in the first day they were made available, the Griz took a seven-point lead into the locker room.
Hasquet hit a 3 to push the lead to 10 before Nevada made a run, cutting its deficit to 63-60 on Mo Charlo's three-point play with 6:12 to go. That's when Matthews drilled a 3 to ignite a 9-0 run that ended on Criswell's layup drawn up by Krsytkowiak during a timeout.
"After that we knew, like, 'OK, it's over now,'" Matthews said despite there being more than three minutes on the clock.
Montana maintained a lead that waxed and waned, but never fell below eight as its potent offense hit nearly 52 percent of its shots and scored more than 80 points for the 13th time. Perhaps more important was that its defensive strategy to let Fazekas and Marcelus Kemp get theirs – they combined for 58 points – but hold everybody else down worked.
"We're not a team that goes out and celebrates, hoots and hahs, but there was a lot of emotion in that locker room," Criswell said in the post-game press conference after scoring 18 points.
Its been exactly 10 years since Montana upset the Wolf Pack before falling to a dynamic Boston College squad in the second round two days later, giving the Big Sky Conference its most recent taste of tournament success. Despite the years that passed the win is still fresh in the minds of Hasquet and Matthews, who described it like it was just yesterday.
"Nothing, absolutely nothing in my life has given me quite the adrenaline rush," Hasquet said. "It was kind of mine blowing. We were rolling on adrenaline and it didn't really even seem real.
"When you're a young kid and you're not getting paid to do it and you get one game – you lose, you go home – so just the stakes and everything about it were higher. That feeling will be something I take with me for the rest of my life."