The two hottest teams in the Big Sky Conference are set to collide at the league’s championship tournament, as the Montana Grizzlies face the Idaho Vandals for the third time this season in the quarterfinal round.
The Griz (16-15, 11-7 BSC) enter the tournament in Reno, Nevada, as the fifth seed after pulling off an improbable road sweep of Weber State and Idaho State to pick up a first-round bye with two-straight wins.
With four-straight wins on a resume that includes a win over Weber State, the Vandals (17-12, 12-6 BSC) are the league’s hottest team, earning the No. 4 seed after closing out the season with a road sweep of Northern Arizona and Southern Utah.
THE GAME: The Griz/Vandals game is a rubber match in more ways than one, and paints an intriguing picture at the neutral court tourney.
Montana and Idaho split their decisions in the regular season, with UM picking up a 70-57 win in Moscow on Jan. 5 and the Vandals taking an 85-77 overtime win in Missoula.
Neither team was at peak performance levels on their home court. When the Griz traveled to Idaho, the Vandals were without the services of BJ Blake, their top rebounder, and second-leading scorer. When UI traveled to Missoula, the Griz were on a three-game slide and had just suffered a defeat to Eastern Washington without two of their tops scorers.
The Griz and Vandals are knotted 5-5 all-time in the Big Sky tournament, and when the two meet at the Reno Events Center at 3:35 p.m. (MT) on Thursday, historical context might be out the window, but when these classic rivals meet, anything can happen.
WATCH/LISTEN: Fans around the world can watch the UM vs. UI game live and free of charge on the league’s digital video streaming platform WatchBigSky.com, and via the Big Sky Conference Mobile App, available to download free from the App Store and on Google Play.
The “Voice of the Griz” Riley Corcoran will bring you the statewide radio call on the Montana Grizzlies Radio Network. An audio-only stream of the radio call is also available at GoGriz.com. Fans can also follow live twitter updates @UMGRIZZLIES_BB, and a link to live stats is available at GoGriz.com
BRACKETOLOGY: Portland State dispatched Northern Arizona 80-67 in the first round of the tournament, with the No. 8 seed Vikings advancing to face regular season conference champion and the tourney’s No. 1 seeded North Dakota Fighting Hawks.
The winner of the Montana/Idaho game on Thursday will face the winner of the North Dakota/Portland State game on Friday, March 10 in the semifinal round, presenting interesting matchups for the Griz. UM split its series with Portland State, losing 88-79 in Oregon in mid-January.
Just five days before falling to PSU, the Griz picked up what would prove to be one of their biggest wins of the season, beating eventual champion North Dakota 76-70 in Missoula.
On the opposite side of the bracket, March Madness has come to Reno with Southern Utah pulling off a triple-overtime upset over Montana State 109-105 to advance on to face Weber State in the quarterfinal. Sacramento State also took care of business against Idaho State and will meet Eastern Washington in the next round.
SERIES HISTORY: Idaho leads the all-time series with the Griz 86-109, dating back to the first meeting between the two schools in the 1915-16 season. Since Idaho rejoined the Big Sky in 2014, the Griz and Vandals are tied 3-3 overall, giving Thursday’s conference round even more rubber match implications.
LAST MATCHUP: On Jan. 28, the Vandals handed the Griz their fourth-consecutive loss – the first time UM had dropped four-straight league games since 2004 – with an 85-77 win in overtime.
The two sides combine for 26 turnovers and 47 personal fouls, but the clutch play of Victor Sanders – who scored a game-high 28 points – was the difference-maker for the visitors. The Vandals made their final four field goal attempts in overtime, while Montana ended the game making just one of their last seven shots, and only three of 13 shots in OT.
LAST TIME IN THE TOURNEY: The Griz advanced to the conference championship game for the second-straight time, defeating Idaho 81-72 in the 2016 semifinal.
The Grizzlies shot a season-high 65.1 percent from the field on 28-43 shooting against the Vandals. An already strong statistic was made stronger by a phenomenal 71.4 percent shooting in the second half when the Griz made 15 of the 21 shots they attempted.
SCOUTING THE GRIZ: Montana scored a season-high 95 points in Saturday’s win over Idaho State and has scored 76 or more points in each of the team’s past four wins, upping UM’s season average to 74.6 points per contest. On the season, UM is 2-0 when scoring over 90 points.
“Our offensive execution is the biggest part,” said Montana head coach Travis DeCuire. “When we take care of business on the defensive end we get really good, high percentage shots in transition.”
While Montana’s scoring prowess has increased to season-best levels, Idaho brings the best scoring defense in the Big Sky to the quarterfinal matchup, allowing its opponents to score an average of 71.9 points per game.
Idaho’s D is also the best in the Big Sky in terms of field goal defense, holding opponents to just over 41 percent.
Idaho may be playing strong defense, but the Griz have been taking care of the ball better than most teams in the nation. UM is currently ranked No. 17 in the country in fewest overall turnovers, and No. 22 in fewest turnovers per game at 10.8.
GRIZ BITS: Montana scored a season-high 95 points against ISU. The Griz are 2-0 when scoring over 90 points this season. UM hit 90 in the Feb. 4 defeat of Montana State.
Griz standout Ahmaad Rorie shot better than 62 percent from the field against ISU, bringing his season average to 45.3 percent, the highest it’s been this season.
Michael Oguine set a new career high against Idaho State, forcing the Bengals into five turnovers, and all-time best for the sophomore.
Ahmaad Rorie scored a combined 50 points against Weber State and Idaho State to take home the final Big Sky Player of the Week award of the season on Monday.
VANDAL BITS: Idaho’s Victor Sanders earned first-team all-conference honors on Monday, averaging 21.6 points per game – the third-highest scoring average in the league.
Idaho’s second leading scorer, BJ Blake is pulling down 6.3 rebounds per contest. For comparison sake: UM’s Fabijan Krslovic is averaging 6.5, and Oguine is pulling down 6.2.
TOURNAMENT HISTORY: Montana will face Idaho in the second round. The Griz have a 37-28 record at the Big Sky Conference Tournament.
UM has played for the championship 18 times, and won the tournament nine times.
Montana has played in 13 NCAA tournament games and picked up a pair of wins. The Griz have also played in four NIT games and two CBI games.
Montana’s Anthony Johnson holds the record for most points scored in a game at the Big Sky Tournament with 42, scored in the championship game against Weber State in 2010.
Johnson also holds the record for most free throws made in a tournament game, going 14-14 from the line against Weber St.
Jim Molloy holds the record for most assists in a tournament game with 13 against Boise State in the 1978 semifinal.
Larry Krystkowiak holds the tournament record for career field goals made with 60 from 1983-86. He also holds the career tournament record for free throws made with 45.
Krystkowiak also holds two rebounding records at the Big Sky tournament. His 40 boards in the 1986 tourney are the most ever, and his career total of 76 rebounds from ’83-’86 is also a record.
“Krysko” has scored the most career points in tournament appearances with 165 points.
Will Cherry holds the record for most steals in a single tournament (9 – 2010) and career tournament appearances (24 – ’10-’13).
Brian Qvale holds the tournament career record for blocked shots with 22 from 2008-11