by Dominic Ferrucci
Weber State will begin their three game trek to a NCAA Tournament appearance with a contest with Montana today. The Grizzlies edged out 11 seed Idaho yesterday by a score of 69-64. The objective is simple: beat Montana for a chance to play tomorrow. If the Wildcats succeed, the season will continue. If not, they will make the trip back to Ogden.
The Wildcats enter tonight’s game winners of six in a row with a 12-3 conference record. That clip was good for the three seed in the Big Sky tournament. Meanwhile, Montana comes into the matchup with a winning streak of their own. The Grizzlies have taken their last five games and, oddly enough, enter Thursday’s game as the defending champs of the Big Sky. The Grizzlies won 2019’s event over Eastern Washington in the inaugural season in Boise. The year prior, Montana was also crowned champions once again as they defeated Eastern Washington. Montana head coach Travis DeCuire has achieved success recently and knows what it takes to win. However, Randy Rahe has been here before. He and the team know that in March, they must step up on the bigger stage.
Senior guard Isiah Brown was selected first team All-Big Sky. Seikou Sisoho Jawara, his backcourt counterpart, earned second team honors. Brown also earned Big Sky Newcomer of the Year. He realizes that the individual recognition is nice, but there is work to be done.
“Everything is heightened in March,” Brown said. “Every game you’re going to play from here on out has to be a championship mentality.”
The Wildcats are focused on the task at hand, and that is beating Montana. This is a team they defeated on February 13, 2021 to start the win streak. Montana also delivered the Wildcats their last loss when the teams faced off two days prior. The Grizzlies took that one 80-67 and held Weber State to just 3-14 shooting from beyond the arc. In that game, Wildcat leading scorer Isiah Brown struggled from the field and scored 6 of his 12 points from the free throw line. Despite Brown’s struggles, Weber State did have five scorers in double figures. That is something that could go a long way in March with depth being a strength of Randy Rahe’s squad. Meanwhile, Montana scorer Kyle Owens led the way with 27 points and made 4 out of 5 three-pointers. Sacred Heart transfer Cameron Parker added two threes of his own in that game as part of a 9-18 performance as a team from three. Since the series with Weber State, Montana has made at least six threes in every game they have played.
Following the recent struggles from Weber State shooting the three ball, Montana now leads the three point field goal percentage. Defensively, the Grizzlies are also second in the conference at defending the three. Fortunately for the Wildcats, their recent troubles shooting from long range might actually benefit them in this game. The 9-40 stretch from deep in the past three games has called for more scoring in the paint and, in turn, the Wildcats two-point field goal percentage has been exceptional. Shooting an average of 61 percent inside the arc the last three games, the Wildcats must continue to get up looks around the rim. Freshman Dillon Jones, who earned Freshman of the Year honors in the league, has excelled at scoring inside the painted area over the last three games. He has the numbers to show for it. Jones has gone 15-19 from two while attempting just one three-pointer. He knows his game. He must continue to be effective if the Wildcats want to make a run in the Big Sky Tournament and beyond.
In their last game, Montana was paced scoring wise by sophomore guard Josh Vazquez. He had 21 points off the bench and made eight three-pointers. Outside of Vazquez, the only other player to make a shot from deep was sophomore forward Kyle Owens who made two of them. As a team, the Grizzlies shot just 39 percent and were 7-22 from behind the arc. Despite struggling offensively, Montana won the turnover battle 17-10 and shot a total of 27 free throws. If Weber State can limit fouling late in possessions, they should stand a good chance to advance to Friday. Here, they would matchup with the winner of Eastern Washington and Northern Arizona.
The Wildcats and the Grizzlies have a history in this tournament. They have met in the championship four times since 2010. Montana took the first three meetings in the final. That includes a win in Ogden before winning the other two games on their home court. Weber State’s win came in Reno in 2016, the first year where the Big Sky tournament was held at a neutral location. Tonight the two will meet at 8 PM MST to add another chapter to their storied history in the Big Sky quarterfinals.
Keys to the Game
1. Production off the Bench
- In the first meeting between these two teams Weber State lacked production outside of the starting five. In their second meeting, the bench chipped in 31 points. Montana will be playing for a second consecutive day while Weber State will be more fresh. Randy Rahe must utilize this to his advantage.
2. Attack the Rim
- The last few games have been ugly for Weber State with wins coming by
a narrow margin thanks in large part to poor three point shooing. If the Wildcats cannot establish hot shooting early, they must get in the paint, draw fouls and utilize their 77.7% season average from the line. This ranks twenty first nationally.
3. Experience Wins Games
- Montana is one of the youngest teams in the nation. They average one year of
experience among players while Weber State averages 2.02 years. The Wildcats only have one freshman on the roster. Though he contributes, veterans like Dontay Bassett, Cody Carlson, Michael Kozak and Brown who have been on this stage must show up.
Featured image courtesy Missoulian