MISSOULA, Mont. -- In the pregame build-up, Tuesday's Big Sky title clash between Weber State and Montana was billed as epic and historic.
Now those words can be used to describe the Wildcats' disappointment at losing the Big Sky Conference crown on the final night of the regular season.
With a stifling defense, Montana locked down a 66-51 win over Weber State in front of a rowdy sellout crowd of 7,157 fans at Dahlberg Arena.
Junior point guard Will Cherry scored 23 points as the Grizzlies celebrated their 12th straight win and their first regular-season championship since the 1999-2000 season to earn the right to bring the Big Sky tournament back to Missoula next week.
In the first meeting between 14-1 teams in conference history, Montana broke away with a 16-0 run in the first half and held Weber State to just 3-of-26 shooting from beyond the 3-point line, a dismal performance for WSU team that entered the game ninth in the nation in 3-point percentage (.408) and third in 3-pointers per game (9.4).
"A lot of teams are afraid to play a zone when you play a team that can shoot it, but I believe you can still get to shooters in zone," Montana coach Wayne Tinkle said. "They'll probably look at the film and there's some that they missed that they normally make, but it was our energy and our focus that maybe created a little bit of that doubt. They're a heck of a team. We feel very fortunate that we were able to get by them. Phase 2 is complete, but we know there are bigger things in front of us and big challenges we need to prepare for."
Kareem Jamar had 17 points and seven rebounds and Mathias Ward added 15 points for the Griz. Art Steward had 12 rebounds as Montana (23-6, 15-1) won the battle on the glass, 40-35, and outshot Weber State from the field, 45.8 percent to 30.2 percent.
Fifty-one points was a season low for the Wildcats.
WSU junior point guard Damian Lillard scored a team-high 19 points but was overshadowed by Cherry, a fellow Oakland, Calif., native and former AAU teammate.
"I don't think it hurts where we're going to play the tournament, it hurts just to lose the game, period," Lillard said.
The loss ended a seven-game winning streak for the Wildcats (23-5, 14-2 Big Sky), who will play a Big Sky tournament semifinal game next Tuesday in Missoula.
Junior forward Frank "Mook" Otis, who was said to be out for the season after he suffered his second knee injury of the year on Jan. 19 at Northern Arizona, checked in with over seven minutes in the first half. Otis, a 6-foot-6 junior from Oakland who played high school ball with Cherry, scored three points in nine minutes.
With his first free throw of the night, Lillard passed Weber State great Jermaine Boyette for most makes from the charity stripe in school history (489).
Jamar's 3 and a pair of buckets from freshman Mike Weisner jumpstarted a 16-0 run for Montana in the first half while the top-ranked defense in the Big Sky held Weber State without a field goal for nine and a half minutes.
Weber State closed the gap to five points twice in the second half, but each time, Cherry and the Griz had the answer.
Montana held a 34-24 advantage at the break while limiting WSU to 34.6 percent from the field in the half, including a just 1-of-10 from beyond the arc.
"We missed shots early and had we made shots, it would have gotten our confidence up a little," Weber State coach Randy Rahe said.
"It's tough. We lost a big game. Our kids, they've had a hell of a season. I'm really proud of them. ... Our kids just kept fighting (through adversity this season); 14-2 is obviously nothing to be ashamed of and 23-5, that's the best season in history for a lot of programs. We came up short tonight, we tip our hat to the Griz. They did a great job, played really well. They've had a phenomenal season. There's two really good teams in this league and they were on their home court tonight and they ended up beating us. That's what it came down to."
Weber State's last-second loss to Idaho State on Jan. 28 is even more haunting now.
The Wildcats could never shake Montana in the conference race and now will have to win two games at Dahlberg Arena on March 6-7 -- and most likely face the Griz again in the title game -- for a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament.
"It definitely hurts," junior point guard Scott Bamforth said. "We prepared hard every day and it hurts when you do that and don't come out and perform well. Give them the credit, they played great. We beat them once, they beat us once. If we didn't have a slip-up at Idaho State, it would be different."