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Montana advances to Big Sky title game; 1 win from return to NCAA tourney

Montana put together one of its most complete performances of the season Friday night, dominating Weber State, 78-49, to advance to the Big Sky Conference championship game for the eighth time in the past 10 seasons. The Grizzlies’ 29-point margin of victory was their largest ever in a Big Sky tournament game.

Like they did Thursday vs. Sacramento State, the Grizzlies jumped out to an early lead, using an 8-0 run to take a 10-2 lead less than 3 minutes into the game. Montana was just getting started. The home team made its first five shot attempts, took a 15-point lead just over 7 minutes into the game and doubled up the Wildcats late in the first half.

Montana led by at least 20 points against Weber State in both meetings during the regular season, but both times, the Wildcats came storming back, getting within four points in both games. Montana left no doubt on Friday, however, pushing the lead to as many as 37 points, and leading by double figures for the final 35 minutes of the contest.

Ahmaad Rorie, who moved up to No. 6 on Montana’s career scoring list, had a career night, tallying a season-best 28 points, in addition to seven rebounds and six assists compared to just one turnover. The senior made his first seven shot attempts and had 18 points by the intermission.

Equally impressive, though, was Rorie’s defense. Squaring off against first-team All-Big Sky player Jerrick Harding, Rorie limited the junior to six points on eight shot attempts – both season lows. The junior entered the night averaging 21.9 points per game (21st nationally). While Rorie was covering Harding, senior Bobby Moorehead was posting up against big man Zach Braxton, who made just two shots. Moorehead, meanwhile, had 13 points and 10 rebounds – his second double-double of the season.

Montana held Weber State – the nation’s 31st-best scoring offense – to a season-low 49 points. The Wildcats rank in the top 60 in the country for field-goal percentage, three-point shooting and free-throw efficiency, but were limited to a season-worst .315 shooting overall, including .238 from beyond the arc. The 49 points scored were more than 31 points below their season average.

Now Montana finds itself in a familiar position, back in the Big Sky Conference championship game. The Grizzlies have played in the title game in eight of the past 10 seasons – including four of five seasons under head coach Travis DeCuire – an unprecedented run never experienced by any team in the 44-year history of the conference tournament.

The Grizzlies are in a familiar setting, but they also are facing a familiar opponent. They will go head to head with Eastern Washington for the second consecutive season in the title game and third time in the past five years. The Eagles upset Montana in Missoula in the 2015, 69-65, before Montana won in 2018. In that contest, Montana overcame an 11-point halftime deficit to out-score Eastern Washington 53-25 in the second half.

Montana knows that a win on Saturday will once again send the Grizzlies dancing. The program is looking for its 12th trip to the NCAA tournament.

Montana, which won the regular-season title for the second consecutive season, is now looking to go back-to-back in the conference tournament. If successful, the Grizzlies would be the fifth Big Sky team ever to win outright regular-season and tournament championships in consecutive seasons, joining 1979-80 Weber State, 1981-82 Idaho, 1991-92 Montana and 2012-13 Montana.

Tipoff for Saturday is slated for 6 p.m. The game can be watched nationwide on ESPNU, as well as ESPN3.com and the WatchESPN app. It can be listened to across the Grizzly Radio Network and nationally on Westwood One.

WITH A WIN…

  • Montana would earn a trip to the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season and 12th time in school history.
  • Travis DeCuire, who is already the only coach to lead Montana to three regular-season titles, would become the third coach to take the Grizzlies to back-to-back NCAA tournaments.
  • Montana would win its 11th tournament championship, the most in league history. The Grizzlies are currently tied with Weber State at 10, although four of the Wildcats’ wins came prior to 1984.
  • The Grizzlies would become the first Big Sky team to repeat as tournament champs since Montana did so in 2012 and 2013. They would become the fifth team in league history to win back-to-back outright regular-season titles and tournament championships.
  • Montana would improve to 26-8 on the year, tied for the third-most wins in school history, along with last year’s program.
  • Montana would win its 52nd game over the past two seasons, extending its school record for best two-year stretch ever.
  • Montana would win its 89th game over the past four seasons, tied for the second-most wins ever by a senior class.
  • Montana would win its 109th game over the past five seasons – since DeCuire took over – tied for the third-most wins ever over a five-year period.

SUSTAINING SUCCESS
Montana’s eight championship-game appearances in the past decade is unheard of, but zeroing in on the past two seasons, the achievements become even more impressive. Not only has Montana won more games in the past two seasons (51) than in any two-year stretch in school history, but the Grizzlies are also one of just 21 schools nationally – through Friday – who have won at least 25 games in both 2017-18 and 2018-19. The list includes Buffalo, Cincinnati, Duke Gonzaga, Houston, Kansas, Kansas State, Kentucky, Michigan, Michigan State, Murray State, Nevada, New Mexico State, North Carolina, North Carolina-Greensboro, Old Dominion, Tennessee, Texas Tech, Vermont and Virginia.

BREAKING A TREND
Across the country, No. 1 seeds in conference tournaments are not living up to their top positioning. Of the 14 conference tournaments which had completed by Friday evening, just three No. 1 seeds earned their league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Nine additional conference tournaments that will finish on Saturday or Sunday will add to that group, with the No. 1 seed already eliminated.

On the flip side, the top seed has had plenty of success in the Big Sky Conference. The No. 1 seed has won the Big Sky tournament in three consecutive seasons and seven of the past eight. Saturday marks the 13th time in the past 14 seasons that the No. 1 seed has advanced to the title game.

SERIES VS. THE EAGLES
Montana and Eastern Washington will meet for the 113th time on Saturday. The Grizzlies own a 68-44 advantage over the Eagles, an impressive feat considering they lost the first 14 games in the series. The two teams have met six times in the conference tournament, with the Grizzlies going 5-1.

In last year’s title game, Montana won by 17 points, despite trailing by 11 at the intermission. The Grizzlies shot 59.2 percent from the field overall (65.4 percent in the second half), including 50.0 from long range. Michael Oguine led all players with 21 points, followed by Ahmaad Rorie (15 points and five assists). Bobby Moorehead chipped in with a dozen, as the trio combined to connect on eight three-pointers.

Montana suffered a six-point setback, 77-71, on Jan. 10 in Cheney, a game that was considered a turning point for the season. The loss was Montana’s second in a row, but coming off of the defeat, the Grizzlies rattled off 10 consecutive victories, trailing for just 29 total minutes during that span (approximately 7 percent of game action). In the road loss, three Grizzlies had at least 16 points, led by Oguine’s 18 and Sayeed Pridgett’s 16 points and nine boards. One month later in Missoula – a 75-74 Griz win – Pridgett had 19 points and 11 boards, connecting on 8-of-10 shot attempts.

Oguine has scored in double figures six times vs. EWU. Pridgett is averaging 16.7 points per game over his last three contests vs. the Eagles.