It was déjà vu.
Montana overcame an 11-point lead by Eastern Washington University and pulled away in the final 1:45 for a 74-66 victory Tuesday (March 6) in the semifinals of the Big Sky Conference Men’s Basketball Championship in Missoula, Mont.
The Grizzlies advance to face Weber State in the championship game Wednesday (March 7) at 6 p.m. Pacific time and televised on ESPN2. The Wildcats trailed Portland State for 36 minutes in Tuesday’s other semifinal, but the Wildcats rallied for a 69-63 victory behind the 22 points of NBA prospect Damian Lillard.
Eastern’s season ended with a 15-17 record. The last time Eastern met the Grizzlies in Missoula, Eastern let a nine-point second half lead slip through their hands in a 79-71 loss.
“We came into an extremely tough venue and gave them all they could handle,” said first-year Eastern head coach Jim Hayford. “It was a great basketball game and I was very proud of the way our team played. We did a fantastic job to hold them to 40 percent shooting, including 23 percent from three. We just fouled a little too much. We played a complete game and I’m really, really proud.”
The game featured four ties and 13 lead changes in just over a 12-minute span in the second half before the Grizzlies pulled away in the final 1:45 to overcome a 62-61 EWU lead. Montana went on an 11-0 run as Eastern missed four shots and had a turnover in that stretch.
The Eagles played a solid game despite playing in front of a crowd of 5,563 at Dahlberg Arena. Eastern had played previously in front of six crowds of 4,000 or more, including 6,000 at Gonzaga and 8,361 at Weber State.
“I thought we played a great game,” said Hayford. “I can’t imagine an Eastern fan who watched it or was here, who wouldn’t be tremendously proud of this team.”
Senior point guard Cliff Colimon scored a game-high 27 points, including 16 in the first half when EWU used a 19-3 run to turn a five-point deficit into an 11-point lead. It equaled the second-most points in his 58-game Eastern career.
Senior forward Cliff Colimon contributed 16 points for EWU, his best scoring performance since he had a season-high 20 versus Weber State on Jan. 5. Another senior forward, Laron Griffin, had 15 points and 14 rebounds for his third-straight double-double and seventh of his career.
“Cliff played a superb game – it was everything you could ever want from a senior,” praised Hayford. “Griffin played great with 15 points and 14 rebounds, and Ederaine was just cutting them up in the first half. Colimon, Griffin and Ederaine left it all out there on the floor.”
“There were a lot of tears because there were four players who realized they played their last college basketball game,” he added.
Mathias Ward, who scored 28 points in the first meeting against Eastern on 9-of-11 shooting from the field and 10-of-13 from the free throw line, scored 19 to lead four Grizzlies in double figures. Point guard Will Cherry added 16 and Kareem Jamar had 18. Cherry, who is sixth in NCAA Division I in steals with an average of 2.6 per game, had three to become the all-time leader with 218.
Eastern made 47 percent of its shots in the game and was out-rebounded by just three. The difference in the game was 10 second-half turnovers, as Montana turned 13 EWU turnovers in the game into 19 points.
“We had only three turnovers in the first half and 10 in the second half,” said Hayford. “I was disappointed in that.”
The Eagles trailed early 17-12, but 13 unanswered points gave EWU a 25-17 lead with 8:38 left. The Grizzlies went 2:15 without scoring as Colimon scored eight points in the run, with the other three scored on a three-point play by Griffin. The run expanded to 19-3 as EWU took its biggest lead of the night at 31-20 with 5:16 left.
Eastern went on to lead 35-30 at halftime, as the Eagles made 50 percent of their shots from the field compared to only 27 percent for Montana. Both teams shot 3-point shots poorly, with Montana making 1-of-9 and EWU slightly better at 2-of-9.
The Grizzlies didn’t have a field goal in the last 4:30 and scored their last eight points of the half at the free throw line. The Grizzlies were 13-of-16 from the charity stripe compared to 3-of-4 for the Eagles.
Eastern has a disastrous start to the second half by making only one of its first five shots and having five turnovers in the opening 5 1/2 minutes. Montana out-scored EWU 11-3 to take a 41-38 lead with 14:34 to play.
The Eagles responded with a 6-0 run, then it became a back-and-forth game until a basket by Griffin with 2:42 left. Eastern didn’t score again until 13 seconds remained and the game was out of reach.
Montana won its 13th-straight game and hasn’t lost since falling at Weber State on Jan. 19 by a 76-58 score.
The Eagles had won four of their last six games, including a trio of wins over Idaho State (85-78 in Pocatello, 77-64 in Cheney and 81-75 in Cheney).
In the first meeting versus UM, an 18-1 Grizzly run turned a 47-38 Eastern lead with 18:11 left in the game into a 56-48 Montana advantage at the 10:49 mark. Eastern, which made 64 percent of its shots in the first half, missed a total of 10-straight shots in the second half before ending a 9:37 stretch without a field goal.
In the rematch in Cheney on Jan. 26 in a 74-60 loss, Montana took a 13-point first-half lead before Eastern went on a 10-2 run to start the second half and pulled within one later in the half. But the Eagles couldn’t overcome 34 percent shooting in the game, including just 21 percent in the first half.