MISSOULA, Mont. — All the answers Weber State seemed to have in the first half Wednesday disappeared as Montana made March Madness its own, claiming the Big Sky tournament championship and the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Mathias Ward and tourney MVP Kareem Jamar scored 23 points apiece and all five Montana starters reached double figures as the Grizzlies knocked the Wildcats out of the conference tournament for the third straight season with an 85-66 win at Dahlberg Arena.
Derek Selvig had 16 points, Will Cherry added 13 and Art Steward had 10 for Montana (25-6), which extended its winning streak to a school-record 14 games, none bigger than a 66-51 win in the regular season finale to earn the right to host the conference tournament.
Missoula rewarded the Griz with 7,042 roaring fans for the championship game as 6-foot-5 sophomore forward Jamar blitzed the Wildcats with 3s, going 5 of 8 from deep and 9 of 12 from the field. Montana hit 8 of 12 from beyond the arc in the second half and 12 of 22 (54.5 percent) for the game.
Two-time Big Sky MVP Damian Lillard scored a game-high 29 points on 11-of-23 shooting and added 10 rebounds and seven assists in what may have been his final league game if the junior point guard from Oakland, Calif., jumps to the NBA this summer without ever experiencing an NCAA Tournament.
Lillard entered the game as the second-leading scorer in the nation and became Weber State’s all-time single-season scoring leader (736 points), its career 3-point leader (243 3s) and moved to seventh on the Big Sky’s career scoring list on Wednesday.
Despite finishing the regular season with a 14-2 record and reaching 24 wins for just the sixth time in school history, Weber State (24-6) will wait to see if it will receive an invitation from the NIT or other postseason tournament.
WSU lost the Big Sky tournament championship game in Ogden in 2009 to an improbable second-half comeback by Montana and the Wildcats were KO’d by the Griz in the tourney semifinals in 2010.
That made Wednesday all the more bitter for Lillard, who was named to the all-tournament team along with Jamar, Ward and Cherry of Montana, Eastern Washington’s Cliff Colimon and Portland State’s Charles Odum.
“It hurts a lot,” Lillard said. “To have been on as many good teams as I have at Weber, for us to fall short to (Montana) in the championship game two times … the first one was unfortunate, but I’ve really had this game marked this game on my calendar because I wanted to pay them back and get into the (NCAA) Tournament. I felt like I owed it to the team to give us a better chance to get to the tournament. Me and (Bullinger) and (Mahoney), we all had the mindset we were going to get our team into the tournament and it hurts a lot that we fell short again after all the success we’ve had.”
WSU’s last trip to the Big Dance came in 2007, Weber State coach Randy Rahe’s first season.
“I don’t know I’ve loved a team more than I love my team and I couldn’t be more proud of them,” Rahe said, “These two guys (Lillard and senior forward Kyle Bullinger) and our team are what college basketball is supposed to be all about. Character, great people, good students, together. They do it the right way. I’m really, really proud of them and I love them absolutely to death. I wouldn’t trade them for anybody else in America. I’d take this team over any team in America, any day.”
Sophomore center Kyle Tresnak had 12 points and sophomore forward Byron Fulton had 10 off the bench for Weber State.
With a week to prepare, the Wildcats at first seemed to solve the Griz zone defense that gave them fits last week in Missoula. Weber State hit its first four 3-point attempts, exceeding its total of 3s in a miserable 3-for-26 performance in last week’s regular season finale, but the Wildcats were 2-of-14 from deep the rest of the way (6-of-18 overall).
Weber State led 36-31 at the half, but Montana’s shooting was relentless after the break.
When the Griz weren’t making it rain 3-pointers, they were converting old fashioned 3-point plays.
“What I was happy with was when we started making 3s, we weren’t just jacking them from that point on,” Montana coach Wayne Tinkle said. “We attacked and I think we delivered those knockout blows at the rim with a couple of those and-ones and breakaways.”