Big Sky basketball delivered yet another classic on Tuesday night, as the league’s semi final showcased a double overtime nailbiter between defending champions Montana State and Weber State in which the Bobcats prevailed, 60-58. Ultimately a lob pass with just two seconds to go was all that could put any distance between the teams. Montana State now advances to face tournament Cinderella Northern Arizona.
Tuesday’s nightcap game promised to be a showdown, as two of the Big Sky’s best squared off in a rematch of the previous year’s semi final. Weber State came in looking to avenge that loss as the three seed, but Montana State would not be an easy out as they looked to defend their title. This game had all the markings of being a Big Sky classic and it delivered.
The opening ten minutes moved back and forth like a boxing match. Both teams threw jabs but did nothing that would allow the other fighter a chance to deliver an impactful blow. This was the nature of the first half as the two teams traded the lead four times, but neither was able to give themselves a significant cushion. The largest lead either built was Weber State’s late in the first half of six, which Montana State quickly cut into. The Wildcats held a narrow one point advantage going into the break, 25-24, but it was clear this game would come down to the last second.
The second half picked up right where the first had left off, with Montana State recapturing the momentum that had allowed them to cut into the Weber lead. Now the haymakers were being thrown. Both fan bases went from screaming to dead silence as the twists and turns took the game one layer deeper and one step closer to completion. Both bands seemed to taunt each other with every note played. Idaho Central Arena was electric as two perennial powerhouse teams wrote another chapter in what has been a wild Big Sky tournament.
“As soon as we started doing the starting lineups it got loud in there,” said Raquan Battle. “We got the best fanbase in the whole league so just being able to have them all come out and support and show love made it felt like we were home.”
The momentum took a swing in the direction of Weber State right before the final media timeout, as Dillion Jones knocked down a mid range jumper that once again changed the complexion of the night, and gave Weber State back the lead. After a free throw extended the Weber State lead to two, Montana State’s sophomore Great Osbar tied the game again. Both teams would earn trips to the line, but again neither could advance their objective as each missed one of their two and they found themselves deadlocked once again.
With 17 seconds left, Montana State broke the huddle on a timeout hoping to survive and advance with one final shot. The shot clock was off as redshirt junior Darius Brown received the ball and sought a screen from senior Jabril Belo. Exploding off the pick, both defenders followed Brown, who turned and found Belo at the top of the key. The big man set his feet and attempted his first three point shot of the night. As the ball flew threw the air as both seasons flashed before their teams eyes, and missed the rim entirely.
A half court heave from the Wildcats also couldn’t find its target and Idaho Central Arena had to sit in nervous anticipation as the two teams prepared for another round of battle.
The tension only grew through overtime as neither team scored in the first half of the extra period. Even once they had broken the cold spell, it did nothing to separate the teams as they continued to match on another. Each team made just one field goal and two free throws in the extra period. Brown once again had the ball in his hands as time wound down on the period, but this time Sprinkle opted not to call a timeout.
“I didn’t want them to set up their defense or have a change of defense,” said Sprinkle of why he opted against calling a timeout on the final possession. “…Our guys knew what we were supposed to run… we practiced those situations a lot.”
Brown again drove right, got his man on his back foot and pulled up for a long two point jumper that hit the side of the rim and during the ensuing rebound the buzzer sounded. Nothing seemed to be able to separate the two squads as yet another overtime to decide a winner.
It seemed like Battle may have delivered the deciding blow as he nailed a three early in the second extra period. In a game that was so low scoring, Weber State had an uphill battle ahead of them if they wanted to keep their title hopes alive, but the team did exactly that. Following a jumper for the Wildcats and a trip to the line for Belo in which he went one for two, senior Junior Ballard came off the bench and exploded to the rim for an easy layup and once again tying the game with just two minutes remaining. Both offenses once again went quiet as knockout blow after knockout blow couldn’t find their target.
The defensive standoff held as the tension continued to grow. An official review gave a brief respite with just 13 seconds to go and gave coach Sprinkle a chance to call his players over and dial up a play, but it wasn’t his call that would be the haymaker.
“I didn’t call that,” Sprinkle said in the postgame press conference. “He (Battle) said I’m gonna be open on a kill cut from the baseline just have (Belo) just chip my guy, I’m gonna be open for a lob.”
In a moment that potential decided the Big Sky’s ultimate winner, Brown brought the ball up the court, just as Battle suspected the baseline was wide open for a backdoor cut from the junior. After Belo’s chip screen left his man trailing, Battle’s emphatic slam set the Montana State fans alight and the team was just 1.5 seconds from another title game.
Weber State called two timeouts trying to set up a perfect play, but ultimately the final shot was blocked and the Wildcats fell for the second consecutive year in the Big Sky semifinals.
Montana State will move on to face the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks, who they swept this year but neither game was a particularly dominant performance in favor of the Cats. NAU has also hit a streak late in the season, winning five of their last six and will likely be a tough out. The Lumberjacks and Bobcats tip off at 9:30 MST on ESPN 2.