MISSOULA, Mont. -- The 'Cats are underdogs now.
What could have been a battle of unbeaten Big Sky basketball teams tonight between Weber State and Montana changed Thursday when Montana State upset the Wildcats and handed them their first league loss.
Now WSU has a chance to do the same to the first-place Grizzlies, though the task is made more difficult by facing Montana (13-4, 9-0 Big Sky) on its home court.
Tipoff is at 7 p.m. at Dahlberg Arena.
Weber State's loss to Montana State snapped its nine-game winning streak and put the Wildcats (13-4, 8-1) in a position they haven't been in for awhile -- trying to bounce back from defeat.
Weber State coach Randy Rahe expects the loss to motivate his players.
"I expect them to react with a little bit of chip on their shoulders, get a little upset, get a little angry about it, stay together, and get ready to go," he said.
Montana is riding a 22-game winning streak against Big Sky opponents, with its last loss coming on Jan. 14, 2012, against Weber State in Ogden. Tonight's contest just the next round of an ongoing prizefight between the Wildcats and Grizzlies for conference supremacy over the past few years.
Defending champion Montana has won five of its last seven against Weber State and knocked the Wildcats out of the Big Sky tournament for the past three seasons.
Now the Griz hold a one-game advantage in the conference race, but Weber State can claw that lead away if it can win tonight and pick up a split on the road trip.
"That's what you always try to shoot for, you try to get a split any road trip, try to steal one," Rahe said. "We're just trying to steal as many as we can on the road. Obviously, now, going into the best team in the league, it will be a huge challenge for us but we're gonna go play. We're going to get excited, we're going to embrace the challenge and we're going to go fight them. That's all you can do."
The contest will feature two of the top 10 3-point shooting teams in the country, with Weber State ranked third (.425) and Montana 10th (.403). WSU began the week second in the nation in 3-point percentage defense (.255).
Griz senior forward Mathias Ward scored 21 points and junior forward Spencer Coleman contributed a career-high 20 points in Thursday's Griz win over Idaho State, while Wildcats junior forward Davion Berry tossed in 24 points on 6 of 8 shooting from beyond the arc in Weber State's loss to Montana State.
Ward is UM's top scorer at 15.5 points per game, while junior guard Kareem Jamar adds 14.4 ppg. Senior guard Will Cherry, a high school teammate of Weber State senior forward Frank "Mook" Otis at McClymonds High in Oakland, Calif., averages 11.3 points per game since returning from an injury that cost him the first seven games of the season.
Berry, another Oakland native, scored 16 points in the final 5:19 of WSU's loss to Montana State, a defeat that makes tonight's game even more important for the Wildcats as they try to keep pace with the Griz.
"I wouldn't say it's a make-or-break game, but it's a game that we have to come together as a team and get our heads ready to go up there and fight. They're a good team, they're undefeated right now, so we have to just go up there and compete," Berry said.
Montana sophomore starter Jordan Gregory, a 6-foot-2 guard who averages 8.1 ppg, twisted his ankle in Thursday's 70-51 win against Idaho State and may miss tonight's game, The Missoulian reported Friday.
Coleman came off the bench against the Bengals and scored 18 of his 20 points in the second half after Cherry was poked in the eye in the first half and had blurred vision.
No matter how tonight goes, Rahe is taking a long view of the season.
Weber State will be at the halfway point of the expanded 20-game Big Sky regular season after tonight, as well as at the halfway point of a long, cold four-game road stretch that will see the 'Cats heading to Grand Forks, N.D., and Greeley, Colo., next week.
"There's a long ways to go. We dropped a road game (Thursday) to a team that was playing probably their best basketball game of the season," Rahe said. "We've just got to get ready to go play the next one. It's not even halfway through league yet, so we've got to stick together and keep fighting, figure out a few things along the way."