Brian Qvale and Will Cherry helped the Grizzlies overcome a sleepy offensive first half and drop Weber State 57–40, ending the Wildcats' season for the second straight year. The teams met in the conference championship game last season when a Montana comeback upset the No. 1 ranked Wildcats 66–65.
The victory moved second-seeded Montana (12–4 in conference, 21–9) into the Big Sky Conference tournament finals tonight at 7 against conference host Northern Colorado, who ran past No. 4 Northern Arizona 73–70.
Qvale and Cherry each scored 16 points as Montana put together a 45-point second half to erase a first-half nightmare that saw the Griz score just 12 points. Luckily for Montana, Weber wasn't putting up big numbers either.
The Grizzlies held No. 3 Weber State scoreless for the first 7:40 of the game, a feat that would normally put a team well out in front. But Montana failed to take advantage of Weber's sluggish start, scoring just seven points during the stretch.
"We got really stagnant after starting 7–0," said Montana coach Wayne Tinkle. "We started settling and we weren't attacking."
The Grizzlies looked like a different team right from the second-half whistle, ending the dry spell just 35 seconds after intermission. Freshman Kareem Jamar hit a 3-point shot to jumpstart the offense. Seeing a basket finally drop seemed to wake up a slumbering Montana offense.
Aggressive drives to the basket provided a cure for Montana's once anemic offense. The aggression drew foul after foul from Wildcat defenders. Solid free throw shooting, which included a 6-for-6 effort from Cherry, helped Montana build momentum that they never relinquished.
More easy baskets put the Grizzlies in a groove in the second half. After shooting a measly 17 percent in the first frame, the Griz hit half of their shots after the break. They played their toughest defense in the game's final minutes, ending much the way they started. Weber State failed to score in the final eight minutes while Montana cruised to victory behind an 18–0 run.
"After our tough start, we just kept telling the guys to hang in there defensively," Tinkle said. "At halftime we told them [Weber State] was the more aggressive team ... We were super proud of how they responded to that in the second half."
The Wildcats struggled against Montana's big men down low, shooting only 21.8 percent from the field and having five shots blocked. Qvale, Montana's senior center, accounted for two of those blocks and grabbed 17 rebounds as Montana outrebounded Weber State 48 to 29.
Forward Scott Bamforth led Weber State in points with 10 and center Trevor Morris added eight points and eight rebounds.
In the other semifinal matchup Tuesday night, Northern Colorado prevailed in a game on the opposite spectrum from Montana's. Defense led the way for the Grizzlies and Wildcats while the offensive fireworks came out for Northern Colorado and Northern Arizona, both of whom scored 40 points by halftime.
The Bears outlasted Northern Arizona after a desperation 3-point shot by NAU's Cameron Jones fell short.
Tinkle said his squad could hang with either team's scoring power. Montana's next opponent, the top-seeded Bears, ranked first in the league in scoring offense during the regular season with 72.4 points per game.
"We're the No. 1 team in the league defensively; game for game that's our strength," Tinkle said. "That's where we hang our hat and we're going to challenge our guys to do it one more time for us."
The winner of tonight's contest will represent the Big Sky in the NCAA Tournament next week.