RENO, Nev. — With a lot of staying power and a little help from the basketball gods, the Montana Grizzlies advanced to the Big Sky Conference tourney title game.
Friday's semifinal with Northern Colorado was knotted at 80-80 with 1.8 seconds left in regulation when Tanner Morgan missed a pair of critical free throws for the Bears. The top-seeded Griz seized the opportunity by pouncing early in overtime and holding on for a 91-89 win at the Reno Events Center.
"The belief that these guys showed was just unbelievable," Montana senior forward Fabijan Krslovic said. "I was very overwhelmed with just pride and how much everyone pulled together at the end."
The game will go down as one of the most memorable in Big Sky tourney history for the Grizzlies. Montana coach Travis DeCuire, whose team will play Eastern Washington on ESPNU in the championship Saturday at 6:11 p.m. Mountain, called it "No. 1 for me in terms of basketball moments."
"We could have quit," DeCuire said. "We've been in this situation a few times. That's why we schedule the way we schedule, to go into tough situations.
"These guys stuck together. It wasn't one or two guys that made it happen. They all took turns."
Montana (25-7) looked to be in deep trouble trailing 80-74 with a minute left in regulation. Then Jamar Akoh cut the deficit on a tip-in. Then the Bears inexplicably turned the ball over by fouling before inbounding the ball and then failing to get the ball across the midcourt line in 10 seconds even though they were not pressured.
The Griz cashed in with a Michael Oguine free throw and then their biggest shot of the game with 23.9 ticks left in regulation. Bobby Moorehead tracked down an Ahmaad Rorie miss from 3-point range, backed up behind the 3-point line and nailed Montana's only triple of the contest when the team needed it most, tying the score at 80-80.
"Bob never second-guesses anything we say," DeCuire said of Moorehead after the coach drew up a 3-point play for Rorie, only to have fate step in for Moorehead. "He waits his turn and goes and gets that ball and dribbles it out and saves us. This is the funnest team I've ever coached."
The key point in the game came with under 5 seconds left in regulation when Krslovic fouled Morgan as he drove to the rim. After timeout was called, Morgan stepped to the free-throw line with 1.8 ticks left and a chance to win it for the Bears with just one free throw.
He missed them both and the game headed to overtime.
"If that's the worst thing that happens in Tanner Morgan's life, where he misses two free throws to give us an opportunity to play, you know what? His life is going to be pretty damned good," said UNC coach Jeff Linder, trying to put a positive spin on a heartbreaking situation.
The Griz seemed rejuvenated in overtime. Oguine hit a pair of foul shots and then made a put-back off his own blocked shot to give Montana an 84-80 lead. Sayeed Pridgett's bucket with 1:57 left stretched the Grizzly lead to 89-84, then it was a matter of holding on.
"We kind of got happy," Pridgett said of his team's mindset when the game went to OT, "but we wanted to make sure we stayed poised to win."
Jordan Davis hit a deuce and then a triple to pull the Bears back within one with 7.2 seconds left in OT. Northern Colorado sent Rorie to the foul line with 4.3 ticks left and he made one of two attempts to give UM a 91-89 lead. Northern Colorado quickly moved the ball up the floor for a buzzer-beating 3-point attempt by Andre Spight, but he missed the mark.
"There's no question you feel like it's meant to be, but you've got to continue to do things the right way," DeCuire said. " ... Sometimes it takes luck to win a conference ... We've been lucky all year but we've put ourselves in position for that."
Oguine paced Montana with 19 points and nine rebounds. Spight had a game-high 22 points for the Bears, who bowed out at 22-12.
Montana struggled against the Bears' physical defense early, hitting 8 of its first 24 shots. Northern Colorado led 31-22 when Montana seized the momentum with just over four minutes left, closing out the half with a 15-6 run that knotted the score at intermission, 37-37.
Now the Grizzlies need to reset in a hurry for Saturday night's championship game.
"Sometimes you don't," DeCuire said. "You just have to ride the wave to the championship game.
"That game is easy to get up for. You're on national TV. That's where you want to be. I don't think they're going to have any problems getting up."