GREELEY, Colo. — Unlike the past two seasons, Weber State isn't hosting the Big Sky Tournament or favored to win it.
That isn't necessarily a bad thing.
The Wildcats have almost no pressure on them when they face Montana in the Big Sky semifinals tonight. They're basically playing with house money, making it this far after they lost their best player, Damian Lillard, to a season-ending injury in December.
"I told the kids we get a chance to go over to Greeley — and two months ago if you would have told me we'd be in this position I'd probably think you were a little nuts with everything that was going on," Weber State coach Randy Rahe said after the Wildcats beat Eastern Washington 79-70 in a first-round conference tournament game on Saturday. "I'm really proud of what they did and I said, 'Let's go over and take a swing at somebody.' That's what we're going to do. We're going to play real hard and we're gonna swing at 'em. Hopefully we play well."
Anything can happen tonight for the Wildcats, who lost to Montana in the Big Sky championship game after blowing a 20-point halftime lead last year. The two teams split their regular season meetings. The Grizzlies won at home by 19, and the Wildcats answered with a 16-point win in the Dee Events Center.
The Big Sky Tournament is being played on the home floor of regular season champion Northern Colorado.
"They laid the wood to us at their place and we played one of our best games of the season against them at our place, so a neutral court should present a close game," Rahe said.
The Grizzlies, the higher seed and slight favorite to win tonight, should have fresher legs than the Wildcats. Montana hasn't played since Feb. 26 and got a first-round bye after Weber State was upset by Eastern Washington in its regular-season finale last Wednesday.
"Obviously they're really good," said Weber State guard Scott Bamforth. "They beat us and we beat them. It's going to be a tough game; it always is. Their bigs are really good; their guards are really good. We're gonna have a tough matchup and hopefully we can get some injuries taken care of in the next few days and come back ready to play."
Montana has improved its health since the teams played in Ogden. Guard Will Cherry, who sprained his ankle against the Wildcats, is back playing effectively. The Grizzlies have a huge frontline with 6-foot-11 center Brian Qvale and 7-foot forward Derek Selvig.
"They've got three big-time quality players in the Big Sky," said Rahe. "Their size and their strength is second to none in the Big Sky. These guys are big, strong and have enough athleticism that makes them a difficult matchup."
The Wildcats have momentum on their side after overcoming a 15-point second-half deficit to defeat Eastern Washington on Saturday. Kyle Bullinger scored a career-high 26 points in that contest.
Big Sky semifinals
Weber State (18-11, 11-5 Big Sky) vs. Montana (20-9, 12-4)
Today, 5:30 p.m.
Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion, Greeley, Colo.
Radio: 1430 AM
Contributing: Trevor Phibbs