The second time battling Sacramento State

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Last time around the Grizzlies survived a hot shooting Sacramento State team with a torrid offensive performance of their own in recording a 12-point victory.

Montana completes the regular season with road contests at Sacramento and Flagstaff.

Even though they were outboarded and made but five treys, the Grizzlies missed but eight shots in the second stanza in scoring 45 points and claiming an 82-70 victory.

Even though the Hornets shot 54 percent they scored but 27 first-half points and trailed by 10 at the intermission.

The first time around was a game of guard scoring for Montana as Kareem Jamar, Jordan Gregory and Keron DeShields combined for 51 points. or 60 percent of the offense  with "Ream" leading the way with 20.

Chris Kemp began his late-season surge with a then-career high 10 to go along with seven rebounds and the Griz as usual took excellent care of the orb with just nine turnovers.

But the Hornets buzz at home, winning 10 of 11 overall and seven of eight conference outings in the always-active Nest.

They shoot 44.5 percent and average almost 70 while giving up the same amount.

Sac State takes good care of the basketball and fill it up from three averaging more than six a game, but they allow opponents more than seven.

They are ball hawkers grabbing almost seven steals an outing.

One forte may be rebounding, not exactly a Griz strength yet ever improving.

The Hornets have been outrebounded in just one a game, while Montana is minus five in that regard.

Picked in the pre-season to finish seventh and eighth by the coaches and media, Sac State has lost two straight to fall into a four-way tie with a 9-9 mark and still battling to get in the tournament so there is a lot on the line this week for the Hornets.

Portland State, Montana State and Eastern Washington are tied with the Hornets for that sixth spot with ISU a game away.

The Bengals certainly could enhance their chances by picking up a W at Eastern especially with league champ Weber State traveling to Portland.

But it may all come down to Saturday when six teams, including Montana, finish up in the afternoon.

One final week to decide this

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Well we're right down to it and even with North Dakota's victory over Northern Colorado Tuesday, there's a whole lot to be determined in this Big Sky Conference race in the last week preceding the seven-team post-season tournament.

The two hottest teams in the circuit, that's right Montana and North Dakota, claimed victories already this week but while UND clinched a tournament spot and either a two or three seed, with 11 wins the Grizzlies are just knocking on the door and not yet assured seeding or even a tournament berth.

With a pair of road games if the Grizzlies were to fall twice and complete the regular season 11-9 a myriad of tie breaking possibilities would exist especially given that Sacramento, Thursday's opponent, has nine wins, and Northern Arizona, the finale is now 10 and 8.

North Dakota and Montana both have four-game winning streaks while Northern Colorado fell for the fourth straight time.

Even Idaho State, with just eight league wins, has an outside chance to get in and unseat teams above them in the standings with closing wins over both Eastern Washington and Portland State, both teams with 9 and 9 marks.

Already with the host spot secure, Weber State also finishes up on the road at Portland State and Eastern, while North Dakota could match the Wildcats with wins as they finish at Southern Utah.

But Weber owns the tie breaker and thus the host position and No. 1 seed.

After being swept by Montana, the Bobcats are fighting for their proverbial life with road games at Northern Arizona and Sacramento and with a 9 and 9 mark looks to at least have to split to have a chance to get in.

Getting to the 20-win pinnacle looks possible for Weber and NAU, now with 16 and with a good road showing Montana can climb the hill with a good tournament performance but it's bleak for anyone else leading one to believe that the tournament champion, as I've written here before, could be facing one of the two so called play-in games.

And that's sure not favorable for the conference and would be a first.

But it is what occurs when the middle of the league is comprised of teams who beat up on each other.

Southern Utah looking to be the spoiler

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The Thunderbirds are still winless and headed to Missoula for a Saturday contest but it wasn't for a lack of trying.

Southern Utah missed a shot at a streak-breaking victory in regulation in Bozeman but fell in overtime to the Bobcats.

And thus speaks the Big Sky Conference this season as a team with the nation's longest losing streak at 25 games takes the Cats to a five-pointer in overtime.

And with the victory Montana State, Montana's final home game of the season Monday night, evened their season mark and moved to 9-8 in league, a half game back of the Grizzlies.

And since Eastern Washington dropped Northern Colorado, Weber State not only broke the home win consecutive game record of Montana but also clinched no worse than a tie for the league title.

The Bears fall for the first time this season at home after 14 straight victories.

With a victory over Southern Utah Montana could inch closer to the second spot while the Wildcats can clinch the tournament host spot Saturday with a victory over Northern Arizona.

Southern Utah's Achilles has been lack of scoring. They average but a league-worst 59.4 an outing, the result of being the worst shooting team (.431) in the circuit.

But Montana won by just eight Jan. 30 in Cedar City and if Thursday night is any indication second-year coach Nick Robinson still has the Birds playing hard.

And talk about incentive - they can still figure into this league race since after Montana they host North Dakota and Northern Colorado.

It would be easy for this Griz team to look past SUU with the Bobcat game right on the horizon and Tinks said on the radio Tuesday night it is something the coaching staff talks about with their group, not something that goes unsaid.

The Thunderbirds start a single senior, Jaren Jeffrey in the post, along with a quartet of underclassman.

Sophomore forward A.J. Hess leads the T-Birds in scoring at 9.1 with no player in double figures.

Casey OIiverson leads from the field at 55 percent and has seen starting time at both the four and the five.

In Cedar City, the Griz trailed by three at the half but missed just seven of 20 attempts after intermission but didn't secure the margin until about three minutes remaining.

It's senior night and the final home game for league MVP Kareem Jamar and fifth year senior Eric Hutchison.

And it's Fan Appreciation Night as well from 4:30-6:30 in the East Auxiliary Gym. Now really who doesn't enjoy a $1 hotdog?

No room for a Saturday night lull

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When you are just three games better than even and fighting for your post-season livelihood you'd thinking facing a team with the nation's longest losing streak wouldn't be much of a challenge.

 

The Grizzlies have a call-in-the-score game against the Thunderbirds in Missoula right?

Well really nothing could be further from the truth as after 24 straight losses going into Thursday's game against Montana State and being the only Big Sky Conference team already eliminated from post-season tournament possibilities, the Montana trip is of the utmost of importance to Southern Utah.

It's their Super Bowl, their Masters, their NCAA Tournament, it's their season maker.

And I can vividly remember in 1999 under the tutelage of Don Holst when the Grizzlies were facing a Sacramento State game with a lofty losing streak against league opponents - the numbers have faded but it might have been 38 straight - when the Hornets decisioned the Griz by three in the midst of our own seven-game losing streak.

Now while it is true you can't find the Thunderbirds listed in the top few of any team or individual statistical category and they stand last in the nation in RPI yet fourth in the circuit in strength of schedule.

But they played Montana to an eight-point game less than a month ago in Cedar City while holding Montana to one of its lower offensive outputs of the season (69 points).

And quite frankly this Montana team has not shown the prowess that they could afford to look past anybody but with the Bobcats in town two days later in a rare Monday matchup, just like in Bozeman, I suppose while damn if I understand, that taking Southern Utah for granted is a possibility.

You see there are peaks and lulls during a basketball season and while not to demean Idaho State in any way, but some of the lackadaisical effort against the Bengals might have come as a result of an emotional performance against Weber State two days earlier.

ISU had four games in eight days with a short bench but I agree with Tinks that at times it looked like the Grizzlies, with a long bench, were the fatigued team.

To win the tournament you need to play well three consecutive nights and you can't just turn on the switch. Like I often say: It's not yet crunch time but you can see it right down the street.

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.

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