By ROY BURTON | Standard-Examiner staff | firstname.lastname@example.org
MISSOULA, Mont. — This is what it always comes down to in the Big Sky Conference: One game for all the glory.
The regular season determined the venue, but this is the one Weber State and Montana fans have had circled on their calendars for months, with the winner moving on to the NCAA Tournament.
The Wildcats and Grizzlies are meeting in the Big Sky Tournament championship game for the third time in four years. Tipoff is at 7 p.m. at Dahlberg Arena in a game that will be nationally televised on ESPNU.
The ’Cats and Griz battled all season for the right to host the tournament, but Montana withstood late injuries to Ward and Cherry to finish with a 19-1 record, one game ahead of WSU’s 18-2 in the Big Sky’s expanded schedule.
Four first-team all-league players, a second team player and two honorable mentions will face off on the court tonight, and that doesn’t include Montana’s leading scorer, senior forward Mathias Ward, who earned second team honors but is done for the season after having surgery on his broken foot.
Junior forward Kareem Jamar, the Big Sky player of the year, and senior point guard Will Cherry, the defensive player of the year, lead the attack for Montana. Weber State’s two first-teamers, senior point guard Scott Bamforth and junior forward Davion Berry, and second-team junior center Kyle Tresnak, will be key to the game, but both teams have depth with players who can step up and be a difference maker.
Freshman forward Joel Bolomboy played that part in Friday’s semifinal game, coming off the bench to fill the stat sheet with 13 points, eight rebounds and five blocked shots as No. 2 seed Weber State overcame a 12-point second-half deficit against No. 3 North Dakota in the semifinals.
The Grizzlies held off fifth seeded Northern Colorado on Friday.
Both sides can point to reasons for confidence as they battle for Big Sky supremacy and an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament:
= The Wildcats enter the game with a 13-game winning streak, third longest in the country.
= Weber State only lost by two points to a healthy Montana team at Dahlberg Arena in January and blasted the Griz 87-63 in Ogden to snap their league-record 25-game Big Sky winning streak (27 including conference tourney games). The ’Cats are due for a breakthrough after being knocked out of the Big Sky Tournament in three straight years.
= WSU is one of the top shooting teams in the nation in both field goal percentage and 3-point percentage and is significantly better defensively than it was a year ago after retooling its defensive philosophy, partly in response to its losses to Montana in the regular season finale and in the championship game.
= Weber State has 26 wins for the fourth time in school history and could tie the school record with a win tonight.
= Weber State is healthy, while Ward is out for good for Montana and Cherry, who broke his foot in the preseason, missed games late in the year after fearing he had re-broken it and may not be 100 percent.
Reasons for Montana momentum:
= The Grizzlies haven’t lost a game at Dahlberg Arena to a Big Sky team in forever. They’ve won 30 consecutive league games there.
= Montana has had Weber State’s number in tournament games. The Griz rallied from a 20-point halftime deficit to the title game in Ogden in 2010, beat WSU in the semifinals in 2011 and in the finals again in 2012. They’ve won five straight overall; WSU hasn’t beaten Montana in a tourney game since 1995.
= Weber State will be playing its third game in three nights, while Montana had a bye in the tourney first round because it won the league.