BOISE, Idaho — As Montana players came to the court for their final warmup against Weber State in Friday’s Big Sky tournament semifinal game, several — yelling as to be heard over the crowd — said to each other “it feels like a home game.”
Indeed, Griz fans outnumbered WSU fans at least 10 to 1 in Boise’s CenturyLink Arena. It felt like Griz players had a 10-to-1 advantage, too.
Montana played what head coach Travis DeCuire said was his team’s best defensive effort in his five seasons there, Ahmaad Rorie was unstoppable offensively and the regular-season champion Griz flattened Weber State 78-49 to advance to their eighth tournament final in 10 seasons.
Weber State (18-15) finished its tournament run with a fitting ode to its regular-season: one of the strongest performances of the year in roughing up PSU in the quarterfinals, then turning around and getting blasted by Montana (25-8) for the worst tournament loss in school history.
“They ice the ball screens ... we tried to make some adjustments. The last two games (against Montana), we made some adjustments. We made adjustments tonight, they figured it out a bit,” WSU head coach Randy Rahe said. “We were able to combat it the last two games but weren’t able to combat it tonight. We had a hard time scoring so it snowballed on us.”
Rorie was the catalyst from start to finish. Montana asked him to guard Jerrick Harding instead of smaller guards like Michael Oguine, and he limited Harding to six points and eight shot attempts.
But his offensive prowess put a fire under his team and the decidedly pro-Montana crowd as well. Rorie scored 18 points in the first 17 minutes on 7-of-7 shooting, including 3 of 3 from deep.
In the end, the senior totaled 28 points, seven rebounds and six assists on 10-of-14 shooting.
While the contest reached a 20-point margin in the first half just the same as the previous two meetings this season, this one felt a little different after a key sequence with nine minutes left in the first frame.
After Michal Kozak scored inside, Brekkott Chapman blocked Sayeed Pridgett for the second time in the game. Kozak buried a 3 the other way to make it 24-14 and give some feel that the Wildcats might be able to weather the storm, especially after following that 3 with a stop.
But as Weber went to push the ball up the floor, Timmy Falls deftly jumped a crosscourt pass for a steal and ran for a dunk that lit up the crowd. Bobby Moorehead scored inside shortly after and Weber State called a timeout down 28-14 with 8:15 left. It would get no closer.
Rorie’s night helped Montana to an 11-of-16 shooting start while WSU began the game 6 of 18.
“Even though we got some better shots (after adjustments), when the ball didn’t go in early I thought it snowballed on us,” Rahe said. “If we had made some shots early it would’ve been a lot closer game but the kids just lost a little confidence.”
Montana also started a small lineup that included Moorehead playing center and Falls giving the Griz more footspeed, essentially giving them three guards and two small forwards.
“They’re hard to match up with. Without having their big guy (injured Jamar Akoh) — I know they wish they had him — but in some ways they’re harder to guard,” Rahe said. “They did a good job of rebounding because they’re veterans and they know how to play the game.”
Moorehead finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds for Montana. Pridgett added 14 points.
Chapman led WSU with 16 points and four rebounds. Kozak added 10 points and four boards while Braxton totaled nine points and six rebounds.
Weber State may continue to play, depending on an invitation from a tournament like the CIT. WSU declined such an invitation last season due to team health and battered depth. The CIT and CBI generally look for teams with records better than .500 overall and in conference, marks WSU did hit despite a fourth-place finish.
“I do want to do that. “We’ve got some good, young kids ... and I’d like to build some momentum,” Rahe said. “I know these guys would like to play and if we get the opportunity, we’d sure like to do it.”