Time to watch the Sky play out

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Big Sky Conference teams have combined for just 26 road victories thus far this season and it is not a surprise that while the circuit's two front runners have a combined 10 losses, both Weber State and Northern Colorado are perfect in eight games at home.

And like Montana with four games remaining in the regular season, the Wildcats and the Bears are home for a pair of contests this week.

Weber State looks to clinch at least a tie for the title with games against suddenly upstart Sacramento State and Northern Arizona while Northern Colorado tries to gain a split with Eastern Washington and Portland State, teams they lost to earlier in the season.

The Wildcats (15-9) have moved into 25th in the Mid-Major poll while Northern Colorado (10-6) continue to receive votes. Coming into the week, only a quartet of league teams have winning records.

If the Wildcats sweep and Northern Colorado loses one game, Weber clinches the outright title and the host spot for the seven-team tournament that starts March 13.

The surprise team of league play certainly is Sacramento State, which was picked seventh and eighth in pre-season polls. The Hornets are 10-2 in the Hornet's Nest and face Montana the last week of the regular season.

They've won seven straight conference home games, the program's longest Division-1 streak, and at 9-7 are tied for third with Montana and North Dakota. If they finish at .500 or above it would be the first time in Sacramento State's D-1 history and a trip to the tourney would be their first since 2006.

But it's a crucial stretch for the Hornets since like Eastern Washington they play three games this week.

The league moved up a spot in RPI this week but still rank just 25th with the Grizzlies in the league's third RPI position behind Weber and UNC.

Saturday night's opponent, Southern Utah, after winning their first game have lost a nation-leading 24 straight with a game at Bozeman Thursday.

Amazingly three games separate the second place team from the 10th spot.

Time for the home stretch

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The Grizzlies are in the midst of quite a run and it couldn't come at a better time as the Big Sky Conference race winds to fruition.

With a quartet of games remaining in the regular season and winners of six of their last eight, yet still just in a three-way tie for third, Montana has positioned themselves by building momentum for the stretch run.

No one that I have talked to can remember when there has been this much parity in the league this late in the season and especially notable to me is the Idaho State team just defeated by one Saturday holds wins over Weber State and Northern Colorado, the top two teams in the circuit.

But what is even more interesting is that at 7-9 those two marquee wins may not have an opportunity to figure into the tiebreaker since the Bengals will have to finish strong to even make their way into the tournament.

Home court may figure prominently and of course so will who you play in the last 20 percent of the schedule.

The Grizzlies have winless Southern Utah at the end of this week in Missoula, then the Bobcats at Dahlberg Arena two days later before hitting the road with the finale at Sacramento and Flagstaff.

The growth and added maturity of this Griz team over the last few weeks has been encouraging and a testament to the patience of a coaching staff which hasn't had the easiest job this season.

Mario Dunn Jr. continues to amaze me and although he failed to register a bunch of steals in the Idaho State game, his cat-like quickness and sudden emergence as an outside offensive threat is paying dividends and causing opponents nightmares.

But this run goes deeper than any single player and while league MVP Kareem Jamar often is offensively unstoppable just go down the roster and you can pick out a myriad of contributions on both sides of the ball.

But kudos to you the Griz faithful for vocally supporting this endeavor and turning Dahlberg Arena into an imposing atmosphere fueled by student-athletes gathered behind the north bucket-the north end zone "wackos" if you will of the Adams Center.

And you have two more chances ... I sincerely hope you'll choose to be a part of it all.

A fun one last night

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Sometimes winning just tastes more special when it arrives in small doses.

But defeating league front-runner Weber State Thursday night left a sweet taste in my mouth all the way up the Mission Valley to Polson and beyond.

And not just because Montana continued its recent Missoula mastery over the Wildcats but because the Grizzlies played as close to a 40-minute game as they have this season.

And it should come as no surprise that as we close in on the completion of the regular season the Grizzlies lay down their finest effort and set the stage for a stretch run to the post season.

Three consecutive home games are surely not a given and the end-of-season journey to Sacramento and Flagstaff are a steep hill to climb but you know what I have to say about hills and climbers.

With the tournament host spot yet to be determined and so many circuit teams hovering slightly better than .500 and the league's low ranking, I have to agree with my pal Carl Arky, the Voice of the Wildcats, that the tournament winner that receives the berth into the NCAA Championships may come in the form of a play-in game for the first time.

It continues with Idaho State in Missoula Saturday night with a myriad of teams, including the Bengals, fighting for a tournament spot and higher seeding.

Thursday's game was high-energy and fast paced and the kind of game I'd pay to broadcast. It was just a blast and for this guy who had a stroke last summer, made me think while I'm not hankerin' to have it occur, wouldn't it just be a broadcasters dream to go out that way.

Such unselfish play by Montana always pays dividends and of course Kareem Jamar, well he needs no introduction. He is just terrific and Saturday night will move into the top 20 in league scoring as he inches towards Montana top five.

The crowd didn't have the numbers one might anticipate given who was playing but the ones in attendance were terrific and required little prodding to rock and roll. And the student section behind Weber's second-half bucket played a role and I'm sure had fun doing so.

Let's do it again Saturday night.

Kareem climbing up the ladders

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Think about this:

In the 50-year history of the Big Sky Conference just 23 players including Montana's Larry Krystowiak and Andrew Strait, have scored more points than senior wing Kareem Jamar.

And if he hits his 20 point or so average Thursday night in Missoula against Weber State "Reem" will inch within a decent first half Saturday of moving into the league's top 20.

But if you think finishing his career in the top five of all-time Griz scorers is more important to Kareem than how many dimes he dishes as he moves toward the top of that list, you'd be mistaken.

With six points vs. Weber State Jamar moves past Wildcat legend Willie Sojourner and into 23rd on the all-time list but with 386, he stands fifth on Montana's all-time assist list with the chance of surpassing former teammate Will Cherry this week.

And if Montana is to be successful against the Wildcats and then Idaho State, Jamar's contribution in both areas is crucial.

While with an upset overtime loss to Idaho State earlier this week cut Weber's league lead to just two games over Northern Colorado and left them standing three better than North Dakota and Northern Arizona, Weber looks like the team to beat even though they haven't been a great road team and four of their last six are away from Dee Events Center.

Randy Rahe teams have lost just 27 league games in his eight-year tenure in Ogden, just short of 80 percent far and away the league's top standard.

The Wildcats allow just 65 points an outing but Idaho State scored 70 in regulation Monday night and added eight overtime points to secure the upset.

But was the outcome an anomaly or was Weber just unable to solve the zone which I'm sure Montana will employ plenty of Thursday.

Weber has given up just 36 percent from long range during league play but surrendered nine of 18 treys to Idaho State.

Kyle Tresnak is a giant presence near the rim and Joel Bolomboy of course is the circuit's top boarder but I think the Griz bench figures paramount in this one.

Weber is thin there and played Monday night and will play in Bozeman on Saturday.

Montana's won the last four over the Wildcats in Missoula and with just a taste of good fortune, they'll make it five straight.

At stake on Thursday

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A look at the last time the Grizzlies faced Weber State pretty much paints a picture of what

areas must improve for Montana to prevail in Missoula Thursday night.

 

A win over the Wildcats not only presents a prime opportunity to elevate the Griz in the league

standings in the first of four home league games but also brings a myriad of tie breaker possibilities.

Northern Colorado swept the grizzlies, has a win over the Wildcats and more than likely will be

the No. 2 seed into the seven-team Big Sky Conference post-season.

 

But Sacramento State and now Idaho State also beat Weber and currently are tied with

Montana at 7-7 for the last spot into the tournament putting pressure on Montana to also hold

a victory over the potential league champ.

 

And Montana has both Sacramento State and Idaho State remaining on their schedule with an

opportunity to sweep either team since they prevailed in Pocatello and in Missoula over the

Hornets.

 

The last game in Ogden was indeed a dog fight with 15 lead changes and 11 ties before Weber

State prevailed 68-63.

 

The five points I suppose could be traced to the free throw line where the Wildcats had seven

more opportunities and scored that five additional points but that is deceiving given late fouling

by Montana to attempt to cut into the deficit.

After a 48 percent first half, the Grizzlies made just 10 of 27 second half field goals and were

but five of 14 from outside the arc where for the game they connected on nine shots at a 50

percent clip.

 

But Joel Bolomboy, who stands fifth in the country in rebounding, captured 19 rebounds,

including a half dozen on the offensive end, and Weber controlled the glass by eight.

Davion Berry probably is going to get his points and the 25 he scored the first time around is

just five better than his league average but redshirt freshman Kyndahl Hill scorched Montana

off the bench hitting all five of his field goal attempts.

 

A quintet of grizzlies, including a pair of starters, scored just two points while Mike Weisner

provided Montana's bench spark with 17.

 

Monday night ISU matched the Wildcats on the glass and while making eight less free throws in

four less attempts, shot 55 percent in regulation, hit three of eight in OT while the 45-minute

zone of Bill Evans held the Wildcats to 41.4 percent, about seven percent less than their league

average.

 

And ISU didn't allow an OT field goal in the last 2:20 while holding the Cats to just five points in the extra session.

 

But the key was guard Chris Hansen, who netted 27 to offset Berry's 20, and drained all four of his quartet of treys, connected on 8 of 16 overall and added seven consecutive free throws.

With a "W" Wayne Tinkle can move into a tie with Mike Montgomery for second all-time on the career list and while there's still time, Montana would sure like to notch this one in the left hand column.

On another side note, Utah State's Stew Morrill, the former Grizzly mentor, stands one win from No. 600, an amazing accomplishment.

A prime rivalry

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Except for the one season that Northern Colorado claimed the league title Big Sky Conference basketball has virtually been dominated by Montana and Weber State.

The Wildcats are headed to Missoula Thursday for a rematch of the Big Sky Conference tournament championship game in three of the last four seasons.

Now while those outcomes are so unlikely suffice it to say that Weber State won the regular season matchup in Ogden the last seven times the two teams have met but even in 2011 when UNC won the tournament it was the Grizzlies that ended Weber's season in the tournament's semi-final round.

Now granted it was a one-point miracle Griz win in Ogden in the tourney in 2010 when Anthony Johnson stole the show and just a three pointer in Missoula last year but a win is a win and let's face it when it counted most the Grizzlies have been up to the task.

Montana has won the last four regular season matchups in Missoula but Thursday's game is a different animal.

The Wildcats, who were picked by both the media and coaches to displace the Grizzlies at the top of the circuit this year, while not exactly dominate have a solid lead in the standings.

But curiously they lost by 19 at Northern Colorado and suffered a surprising overtime decision at Sacramento State. Then of course Weber State also dropped last night's Montana contest to Idaho State.

But the Wildcats are hitting just short of half of their field goal attempts, allow a league low 42 percent from the field, hold opponents to 64 points-per-game and are dominant on the boards.

Senior Davion Berry, an all-league and all-District performer last year, leads with better than a 20-point average accompanied by almost five rebounds and four assists.

Solid at all starting positions, the Wildcats are anchored in the post by 6-foot 10 Kyle Tresnak yet off the wing Joel Bolomboy amazingly is corralling better than a dozen rebounds an outing in league while contributing almost 10 points.

Along with point guard Jordan Richardson it might seem like they've been in Ogden forever since they both played as true frosh and Richardson is a game short of the league record in games started.

It's all about D especially since the Griz have been porous allowing better than 48 percent in league play.

Join us for the Hoop Show tonight at 6 p.m. from Dickie's Barbecue.

Not enough against North Dakota

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The Grizzlies dropped deep in the Big Sky standings after being swept in consecutive road games by teams they entered the week tied with in the listing.

Montana rebounded from a double-digit deficit to make it interesting but couldn't quite climb the hill in Grand Forks falling to North Dakota 74-69.

UND went on a rampage at the game's start and again after the intermission but the Grizzlies kept working back into the contest and with a trey attempt by Mario Dunn, who put up career scoring numbers, could have been in a one-possession game late in the going.

But it was his only miss of the afternoon and Montana could get no closer than the five points which ended up being the final margin.

Montana missed but 10 of 23 field goal attempts in the second half at the Sioux Center and beat an opponent on the boards for only the third time all season but 17 turnovers along with a dozen North Dakota steals - four each by Troy Huff and Jamal Webb - ultimately spelled doom to drop Montana to 7-7 in league play.

And with four of the final six games at home, it's a case of struggling for post-season seeding to avoid facing the second-place team in the opening round of the first-ever and probably last seven-team tournament.

But with tie-breaker implications still looming with league-leading Weber State coming to town Thursday night a victory over the Wildcats could loom large.

The aforementioned Dunn netted 17 and while just a 60 percent shooter connected on seven consecutive free throws and a near-career high seven rebounds - all on the defensive end - to join a trio of other Grizzlies in double figures.

But UND's leading scorer Troy Huff netted 18 on 15 shots and Jason Nash was an efficient nine of 13 from the field for 19 points to more than offset the Grizzly scorers.

Mike Weisner continued his strong bench play with a pair of treys and a dozen points but he was all there was off the Grizzly bench as four of the other five who played were scoreless and only Riley Bradshaw had a rebound.

Kareem Jamar led the way with 18 but uncharacteristically had six of Montana's 17 turnovers as league play moves into the home stretch.

A tough meeting in Greeley

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It was a game effort for the Grizzlies in Greeley, Colo, but while it took an overtime peiord Northern Colorado survived to win for the 12th straight time at home.

The Grizzlies battled back from an 11-point second half deficit after leading at the half by two and went toe-to-toe in an effort to claim sole possession of second place and avenge the UNC 11-point victory in Missoula.

The Grizzlies in fact had the opportunity to claim the W in regulation as they had the ball with 12.7 seconds to go but as time ran out a forced trey by Kareem Jamar was short and the two teams headed for OT tied at 77.

The Bears outscored the Grizzlies 20-10 in the first six-plus minutes but partially behind the long-range bombs of Mike Weisner Montana kept battling back in a game with double-figure lead changes and ties.

Kareem Jamar was limited to about eight minutes besieged with foul trouble in the first half but led Griz scorers with 21

Often times when a team uses that much energy to try to climb even, especially on the road, they can't quite climb the hill but Montana displayed a load of character to push Northern Colorado to the limit but late in the game and the OT they had no answer for Tate Unruh and several times the defense broke down allowing the Bears to get to the rim uncontested.

Northern Colorado was a torrid 66 percent from the field in the second half and dropped in four of five overtime opportunities while the Grizzlies hit just two of six in the extra period.

"We blew an opportunity here," said Wayne Tinkle. "Defensively we just didn't do a very good job."

Montana got good production at times inside and even though they were cold from long range in the first half, the trey kept bringing them back in the crunch even though they attempted 29 from outside the arc.

Keron DeShields, Jordan Gregory, Weisner and Mario Dunn Jr. all were in double figures with Keron dropping in 20 with aggressive drives to the bucket.

With the Cats winning at North Dakota they jump into a tie with Montana and UND with 7-6 marks.

It's an afternoon game Saturday in Grand Forks with the pre-game at 12:30 p.m.

Battle for second place

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It is a pivotal week for Griz hoop as the winter road beckons.

Montana challenges unbeatan-at-home Northern Colorado in Greeley tonight with at least a share of second place at stake.

In the meantime, Montana State travels to Grand Forks to face North Dakota also tied for the runner-up spot behind Weber State with just two games separating second and 10th in the league standings.

With a W Wayne Tinkle ties Mike Montgomery for second on the career wins list of course far back of arena namesake Jiggs Dahlberg who was at the helm twice and accumulated 222 victories.

In eight full seasons Monty, now the head coach at Cal, accumulated 154 wins in his eight seasons between 1979-1986 while Tinks is on the verge of securing the tying mark with seven regular season games left after tonight in his eight season career.

He also is tied for seventh most all-time in league play with former Gonzaga University mentor Hank Anderson.

But tonight's hill is steep but no hill for a climber you hear.

The Bears are 11-0 at Butler-Hancock Pavillion but have lost four straight on the road since being tied with Weber State for the league lead.

They fell at Portland State amazingly by 23, dropped a four-pointer in OT to Eastern Washington, fell by three to Idaho State and most recently were defeated by the Wildcats by 14.

Senior guard Tate Unruh is the trigger man for the Bears, scoring more than a 1,000 points and averaging a dozen a game while shooting 39 percent from long range.

But at power forward Derrick Barden averages 14 an outing and yanks down better than eight caroms while connecting on 56 percent of his field goal attempts.

Montana has won five of six over Northern Colorado before the Bears defeated the Griz in Missoula earlier this season and have enjoyed good fortune in Greeley winning the last three times there.

But the Bears prevailed by 11 in Missoula the last time around with deep bench play and outrebounding Montana 31-15.

But this is a far different Montana unit since that mid-January matchup and you can bet the Unruh-Barden duo will not net 40 points between them Thursday night.

An important outing.

Teams going in opposite directions

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Remember back in late January after the Grizzlies lost to Northern Colorado at Dahlberg Arena 84-73 to fall below .500 overall and a loser in four of six Big Sky Conference games?

It's been mostly roses since then and ironically the Bears are next on the agenda.

Montana hits the road on this Wednesday flying into Denver for the short car trip to Greeley where a Northern Colorado team has fallen on hard times since they were riding high upon defeating the Grizzlies in Missoula.

The Bears have lost four straight and fell from the league pinnacle, now occupied by just once-beaten Weber State, and into a tie for the league's third spot shared by the Grizzlies.

And while it could be described as teams headed in opposite directions keep in mind Northern Colorado has yet to lose in 11 games at the Hancock Center and with six of eight circuit games at home will figure a strong finish and a building of late-season momentum looms on their agenda.

And while they don't draw huge numbers in Greeley, it certainly can be a raucous and intimidating place for a visiting team.

The Griz have done an admirable job of moving in the right direction and with a trio of road wins made up for a pair of early league home losses and have set the table for a late-season run of their own to the seven-team tournament with the Wildcats very close to clinching the host spot and first-round bye.

And they have done so currently with a four game win streak since losing at Weber, and while they have played superbly at times, Montana has yet to put together a complete 40-minute outing.

Tinks seems to have settled on the starting lineup featuring freshman Mario Dunn Jr. at the point, Andy Martin anchoring the five slot, and junior sharpshooter Mike Weisner playing the best hoop of his Griz career coming early off the bench.

The recent added maturation of JC transfer Chris Kemp also brings a different element especially on the offensive glass which has been a Griz liability.

Montana has a quartet of home games book-ended by four road games before the league tournament in the middle of March.

Tiebreakers and seeding begins to be the talk of the day.

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