MISSOULA – And finally, the home stretch is here.
The Montana men’s basketball team has completed 29 regular-season games so far this year, starting all the way back on Nov. 9 when Georgia State visited Dahlberg Arena. Now, only two games remain on the slate before the Grizzlies and the rest of the Big Sky Conference gear up for the conference tournament next week in Boise, Idaho.
The grind is coming to an end, but there is still business to be taken care of for the first-place Grizzlies.
As it stands, Montana has a one-game lead on Northern Colorado for the top spot in the conference standings. The Grizzlies are already a lock for a top-two seed at the tournament, but two wins would guarantee a second-straight outright regular-season title.
But even if Montana were to split on the weekend and UNC won both of its games, Montana still holds the tie-breaker edge over the third- and fourth-place teams in Montana State and Weber State. Montana swept both of those schools while Northern Colorado split its meetings with both.
In fifth is Eastern Washington, which both schools went 1-1 against. Portland State, Montana’s opponent on Thursday, is sixth. UNC is 2-0 against PSU while UM is 0-1.
So if Montana wins on Thursday against Portland State and loses Saturday to Sac State and if UNC beat both Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, the two teams would tie and share the regular season title. However, Montana would earn the No. 1 seed in the tournament because of the tie-breaker scenario because neither Portland State nor any other team could finish in third outside of MSU, Weber or Eastern.
So plenty could shuffle over the final few days of the regular season. Of course, all of these scenarios are thrown out if the Griz win their final two games. Travis DeCuire and the Grizzlies understand that, so their main focus is simple.
“We control our destiny and that’s the best position to be in in this league,” senior Bobby Moorehead said. “It’s all about getting mentally prepared more so than anything.”
Thursday’s matchup offers an opportunity for revenge in a critical game for the Griz. UM heads to Portland State, the team that beat Montana 77-74 in overtime back on Jan. 5.
PSU is a much different team than when the Griz first met them. Despite losing 68-66 to Eastern in their last game on Saturday, the Vikings won five in a row before that. After starting the conference season 1-5, PSU (14-15, 9-9) is 8-4 down the stretch as it has tried to position itself for a bye in the conference tournament.
“Just know what’s on the line going into the conference tournament and that’s what it comes down to,” senior Michael Oguine said. “Giving everything we have. We’re leaving everything out on the court and for us seniors, it’s the last chance we get so we might as well make it the best.”
Montana, which recently swept NAU and SUU, has had its lethargic moments over the last couple of games usually in the form of slow starts that put the Griz into a hole. The Griz edged out NAU 66-64 on Monday. Some of that may be a result of the long conference season, so keeping that fire down the stretch is arguably the biggest key.
“I think it relies on us older guys who knows what it takes and then just to know what it feels like to go to the NCAA Tournament and win a championship,” Moorehead said. “There’s no better feeling. It’s on us to resonate that to (the guys who haven’t been) and let them know that it’s such an amazing experience.
“That experience of cutting the nets and winning a championship for your university and city, there’s nothing like it. That is worth it all.”
Added DeCuire about the emotions of the last two games, “I think the best thing is there’s no more last of anything. There’s no senior night, there’s no last home game. You don’t have more people at your game than normal. Now we’re just going to go play two games.
“We have a tough road trip that’s been tough for everybody. We have to go play our best basketball and we’ll be focused.”