Montana coach Wayne Tinkle holds up the championship trophy after Montana defeated Weber State 85-66 in an NCAA college basketball game for the Big Sky men's tournament title in Missoula, Mont., on Wednesday, March 7, 2012. (AP Photo/Michael Albans)
MISSOULA, Mont. — Damian Lillard will likely go down as the greatest basketball player in Weber State history to never play in the NCAA Tournament.
In frustrating fashion, Lillard and the Wildcats won't be going to the Big "ance" again this year because their perimeter "D" disappeared in the second half of Tuesday night's Big Sky Conference championship game against the University of Montana.
With junior Kareem Jamar and sophomore Mathias Ward burying shot after shot from long range, several of them from a couple steps beyond the 3-point line, the Grizzlies claimed the Big Sky title and automatic NCAA tourney berth that goes with it with an 85-66 victory over the 'Cats at Dahlberg Arena.
"I want to give Montana a whole bunch of credit," said WSU coach Randy Rahe. "They've got an outstanding basketball team. They've got really good players — and a lot of 'em.
"In the second half, they shot the ball as well as any team I've seen shoot the ball in a tournament situation, and they shot it from deep and they shot it from places that we're usually not used to guarding. ... They came out and they earned that win."
Montana (25-6) poured in 54 second-half points and, after the Wildcats (24-6) took their last lead at 43-42 with 16:07 to go, outscored Weber State 43-23 over the final 16 minutes to win its eighth Big Sky championship. It also gave the Griz a school-record 14th straight win, and they have now beaten WSU in the conference tourney three consecutive years, including twice in the title game and once in the semifinals.
"What a second half, that's all I can say," Montana coach Wayne Tinkle said. "Weber came out and hit us in the mouth. I think our guys did a good job of not panicking."
Ward scored 10 of his 23 points in the first four-plus minutes of the second half to give the Grizzlies their first lead. Then Jamar got the hot hand, scoring 10 points in a 16-4 run that gave the Grizzlies a 58-47 lead. Jamar had 16 of his 23 points in the second half as Montana withstood a brief Weber State rally that cut the deficit to six, 58-52, and the Grizzlies never looked back after that. Jamar, named the tournament MVP, and Ward combined for six second-half 3-point bombs, and in all, the Grizzlies were 8-of-12 from beyond the arc in the second half. Jamar also had seven assists and Ward grabbed eight rebounds.
"They were going in, thank God," Jamar said. "I was happy that we shared the ball."
Derek Selvig scored 13 of his 16 points in the first half and also had nine rebounds for the Grizzlies, while Will Cherry added 13 points and six assists and Art Stewart contributed 10 points and seven boards as all five Montana starters scored in double figures. Lillard, Weber State's stellar junior guard, two-time league MVP and District VIII Player of the Year, scored a game-high 29 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and had seven assists, but it wasn't enough to get his team to the Big Dance. NBA scouts have closely followed the nation's second-leading scorer for most of this season, and if he enters his name in the NBA Draft as expected, he is projected to be a probable first-round pick this summer.
Sophomore center Kyle Tresnak added 12 points for the Wildcats, 10 of them coming in the first half as WSU built an early 7-0 lead, stretched it to as many as 11 and still led 36-31 at halftime before Montana's second-half offensive onslaught. Byron Fulton had 10 points off the bench for the Wildcats — the only reserve to score for either team.
"I don't know if I can love a team more than I love my team," Rahe said.
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"And I wouldn't trade them for any team in the country. Win, lose or draw, I wouldn't trade 'em. I absolutely love 'em. "They are what college basketball is supposed to be all about — great kids, great teammates, great students. They represent our program the way college athletics is supposed to be represented. And it hurts like crazy to lose games like this. And it hurts like crazy for us because I hurt for them, because of everything they've done and how hard they've worked and what they've put into it. They've invested their heart and soul in their program, they've invested their heart and soul in each other. "It's unfortunate to come up short," said Rahe, whose team will now await word to see if it is invited to play in the National Invitation Tournament or Basketball Coaches Invitational events. "I know people are upset and I know people are disappointed, but I wouldn't trade this team for anybody. They've done an outstanding job this year — we just came up a little bit short. ... We're going to end up playing a little more basketball this year. It's just tough to take sometimes. But that's the way it is. You've got to take it, you've got to learn from it and you've got to grow from it, and that's what we're gonna do."
GAME NOTES: Lillard became WSU's single-season leader in points scored with 736, passing Harold Arceneaux, and also became the school's career leader in 3-pointers with 243, passing John Hamilton.