MISSOULA, Mont. -- The Wildcats grappled with the Grizzlies for the Big Sky Conference title right down to the final day, when Montana clinched first place and the host site for the league tournament.
Now there are three games and three days standing between Weber State, its first Big Sky Tournament title since 2007 and an automatic bid for the NCAA Tournament -- all of which will be played on the Grizzlies' home court at Dahlberg Arena.
'Cats coach Randy Rahe knows the challenge WSU faces to achieve its goal. His response: Bring it on.
"I'm wired a little bit different. I'm a little sick sometimes," he says. "I don't mind going up there and playing. I love the challenge. I tell our kids all the time: The bigger the challenge, the more I love it. We've got a big challenge and we're going to go attack it."
Montana (23-6, 19-1 Big Sky) and Weber State (24-5, 18-2) are the overwhelming favorites to contend for the championship, as they did last year with the Grizzlies coming out ahead, but the path for the second seed is a little bit longer this season. When the Big Sky expanded to a 20-game league schedule with two new teams in the conference, the tournament field also grew to seven teams, leaving only the top seed with a first-round bye instead of the top two, as in the past.
So Montana will wait while Weber State meets No. 7 seed Northern Arizona in a Big Sky tournament quarterfinal at
3 p.m. today in Missoula. League newcomers North Dakota and Southern Utah play at 5:30 p.m. as the third and sixth seeds, respectively, and No. 4 Northern Colorado and No. 5 Montana State will play at 8 p.m.
The Griz, who have knocked WSU out of the tournament in three straight years, will face the lowest remaining seed on Thursday.
With an 11-game winning streak, the fifth-longest in the nation, Weber State may be the hottest team in the league, but the Wildcats haven't forgotten what they had to do 12 days ago to keep that streak alive while playing Northern Arizona (11-20, 8-12) at Flagstaff, Ariz.
The Lumberjacks led by seven points with 1:08 remaining in regulation before the 'Cats staged a remarkable comeback to win in overtime, 80-78.
Weber State leads the nation in field goal percentage (.508), 3-point percentage (.433) and 3-point defense (.280); the Wildcats are the only team in the country to be first in three categories.
The Wildcats want to win the Big Sky Tournament, but "we've got two games to take care of before we can get to the championship," senior shooting guard Scott Bamforth said. "A lot of things that can happen in between then. There's a lot of good teams in this league that have good players that can come out and be hot and knock off somebody, so we've got to come out and take care of business (today) and Friday to get to Saturday."
If Weber State is one of the hottest teams, NAU senior guard Gabe Rogers might be one of the hottest players. Rogers won the Big Sky scoring title by averaging 18.1 ppg, including a game-high 25 points versus WSU on March 2. He averaged 20.1 ppg in Big Sky play and has scored over 20 points in 11 of his last 14 games.
The Wildcats have won 10 in a row against the Lumberjacks, but their recent battle is still on Rahe's mind.
"If they don't have our attention, there's something wrong with us," Rahe said. "Because we had to fight like crazy just to get out of there with a win.
"From Northern Arizona's standpoint, they're going to be confident, they're going to feel like, hey, we can do this, so it's going to make for a good first-round matchup."
In their meeting in Ogden on Jan. 17, Weber State won 80-73.
NAU coach Jack Murphy isn't sure if playing a pair of competitive games against WSU "is a benefit or if it hurts us because they are not going to overlook us," he said. "Coach Rahe and his staff do a good job and I think they have good respect for what we are doing. Their players know we can compete with them. They are not going to take us lightly. We are going to have to come out and earn everything we get."
Even with their hope of playing on Saturday for the Big Sky Tournament championship and a trip to the NCAA Tournament, the Wildcats are saying all the right things.
"My mindset is one game at a time," said senior forward Frank "Mook" Otis. "We can't look past anybody; that's why we lost those two games (in Big Sky play) this year. I feel like we were kind of looking past Montana State looking forward to going and playing at Montana and we ended up slipping up on those two games. We learn from our mistakes. NAU (on March 2) also helped us learn not to look past anybody."
Bamforth, one of two first-team all-Big Sky selections from Weber State along with junior forward Davion Berry, says the Wildcats are confident.
"We're a good team, we felt like whether we play here or whether we play there, we feel like we're going to get the job done," he said. "It's not being overconfident, not taking nothing from no one else, that's just what we feel."
Otis and Bamforth, Weber State's two seniors, have tried to inspire the Wildcats to imagine what winning the tournament title will feel like.
"We just believe it's going to happen," Bamforth said.