MISSOULA — Montana Grizzlies head coach Travis DeCuire cut the final loop and twirled the net over his head before he stepped down off the ladder.
The celebration had started on the court nearly 10 minutes earlier, but it began throughout Dahlberg Arena well before when the Griz were on their way to a blowout win over Weber State.
They locked down the 3-point line and locked up their first outright Big Sky title since 2013 with a 75-57 victory over the rival Wildcats on Thursday.
“It feels good,” the fourth-year head coach said after the game. “Like fine wine, nothing worth having happens overnight.”
The win secured the top seed in the league tournament next week. Montana will close out the regular season against Idaho State with senior night 7 p.m. Saturday.
It’s the seventh time the Griz have had the regular-season title to themselves in their 55 years of playing in the Big Sky. They’ve been the outright champs or co-champs 11 times, including a share of the title in DeCuire’s first season.
“We had some heart with that group,” DeCuire said. “Now, we’ve got the speed, we’ve got the athleticism, we also have the inside-out game, we’ve got the balance, the versatility and the depth of a team that can win a championship.
“When the ball doesn’t go through the basket, we’ve got the guys who can defend. I think that’s what we’ve lacked the last couple years is lockdown defenders."
Weber State, which had lost two consecutive home games, dropped its third game in a row after a 12-2 start to league play. The Wildcats fell to the fourth seed with the loss, behind Eastern Washington.
The Grizzlies’ rotations on their ball-screen defense was effective in holding Weber State to 2 of 11 from beyond the arc. The Wildcats came into the game second in Division I shooting 42.9 percent on 3-pointers with 9.5 makes per game.
Weber State guards Jerrick Harding and Ryan Richardson scored 19 and five points, combining for 1 of 5 on 3-pointers as the Griz planned to not let them get off 3-pointers.
“Harding and Richardson, those two guys, they need to score a ton of points for them to typically get in the 70s,” DeCuire said. “We knew if we could just shut one of them down, we’d be in pretty good shape.”
The pressure from Montana’s defense forced Weber State to try to get the ball inside. Forward Brekkott Chapman scored 14 points for the Wildcats but was held to four in the second half, and center Zach Braxton fouled out with four points and four rebounds in 16 minutes. The Griz had a 42-25 advantage on the boards.
Weber State finished with three assists on 22 made baskets and went the entire first half without an assist.
“We’re not the most athletic team,” Weber State head coach Randy Rahe said. “That was my biggest fear coming in here tonight — that we don’t have a lot of guys who can make plays off the bounce. They force you to. Their strength was our weakness.”
The Griz moved the ball with patience and precision, tallying 22 assists on 31 makes to help them shoot 53.4 percent (31 of 58) from the field.
Ahmaad Rorie tallied 20 points and seven assists, both team highs, seeing that the post players stepped up and left shooters open and when he drove down the lane.
“My coaches have been talking to me all week about leading,” Rorie said. “It’s going to be big these next couple weeks for me to step up and lead us, not only scoring but help getting guys involved but also scoring and taking over the games. Just really got focused and tried to do that tonight.”
Montana forward Fabijan Krslovic recorded his first double-double of the season with 15 points and 11 rebounds. He converted an and-1 and threw down a dunk as the Griz jumped out to a 7-0 lead.
“Ahmaad got me rolling at the start,” Krslovic said. “He gave me two great looks early right around the rim, so I think that gave me some confidence (to see) the ball go through the hoop a couple times. From then on, every time I caught the ball, I felt like I could do some damage with it."
The Wildcats struggled finishing at the rim and missed nine of 10 shots during one stretch as the Griz pushed their lead to 21-10. Chapman and Harding keyed an 8-0 run that cut Montana’s lead to 21-18.
Rorie and Mike Oguine started to heat up and totaled 19-first half points to help Montana take a 36-29 halftime lead.
Krslovic and Jamar Akoh combined for the first six points of the seconds half, all in the paint as the Griz built a 42-29 lead.
Weber State missed its first six 3-pointers and didn’t make one until Michal Kozak hit a wide-open look with 14:12 remaining, cutting Montana’s lead to 46-36. Rorie answered with a 3-pointer, and the Griz found easy layups, taking their first 20-point lead at 63-43 on an Oguine alley-oop dunk with 7:29 to play.