March 9, 2010

Bears' comeback not enough in semifinal loss to Montana

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OGDEN, Utah -- Northern Colorado overcame a 14-point second-half deficit Tuesday night against Montana and took a lead, but the Grizzlies scored the final six points to send the Bears home with a 68-63 semifinal loss in the 2010 Big Sky Conference Championship.

The Bears (24-7) were down 57-43 with eight minutes to play before authoring a 20-5 run over the next seven-plus minutes to go up 63-62 at the 1:47 mark and send the impressive Northern Colorado contingent in attendance into frenzy amid all the purple-clad seats at Weber State’s Dee Events Center.

Montana (21-9) sank four free throws and got a key jumper from Will Cherry down the stretch, though, to end Northern Colorado’s quest for its first Big Sky Conference Championship and its bid for a first NCAA Tournament appearance.

Senior Will Figures led all scorers with 23 points, including back-to-back 3-pointers during that run, and Mike Proctor added 10 and a team-high seven rebounds for the Bears, whose charge for a school-record 25 wins will have to wait at least one more week.

Northern Colorado won’t be dancing this season, but it still has a great shot of playing postseason basketball. The National Invitational Tournament (NIT), the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) or the College Insider Tournament (CIT) all remain possibilities for the Bears.

“We played really well for most of this game,” Northern Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. “We’re obviously disappointed in the way things turned out, but that doesn’t diminish what we’ve done so far this season. We’re still not done yet -- we’ll play in another tournament -- but we really wanted to win this tournament. These guys have worked too hard to end it like this.”

Anthony Johnson scored 19 points to lead the Grizzlies and Cherry scored 10 to help Montana advance to tomorrow night’s Big Sky title game against Weber State, which advanced with a 69-60 victory against Portland State in the later semifinal.

The Bears entered the game 14th in the nation in free throws made (564), but Montana benefitted most at the charity stripe in this one, attempting 16 in the second half (12-16) to just four for Northern Colorado (2-4).

“I’m really disappointed in how things played out down the stretch,” Boyle said. “There was a lot of pushing, shoving and flopping going on at the end there … and I’m just disappointed it had to end the way it did. But, hey, that’s the way basketball goes. We’ve overcome those all year long; we just weren’t able to do it tonight in the last (1:23). But I’m proud of our guys.”

Montana, which led 33-32 at the half, took its 14-point lead after Johnson scored four straight points, including a wide-open 3-pointer from the top of the arc and a single free throw about 30 seconds later.

The Bears responded with layups from Chris Kaba and Taylor Montgomery, a pair of free throws from Kaba and a 3-pointer from Figures to pull within five, 57-52. Then, following a Johnson layup, Figures hit another three and Kaba followed with a three of his own to pull NC within one, 59-58.

Cherry hit one of two free throws on Montana’s next possession, but Figures came back down to tie it at 60 with another of his patented up-and-under layups. Derek Selvig maneuvered inside for a layup to put the Griz back up, 62-60, on the next play.

Yahosh Bonner splashed home a 3-pointer on Northern Colorado’s next possession to give NC its first lead since early in the second period and score the Bears’ final points of the game.

“We had a great week of practice, and we really came out and executed at a high level in as intense a game as you can have,” Boyle said. “The way this team came back in the second half … we’ve got guys who aren’t going to quit. We got our heads down a bit in the second half, but we fought back and got a tremendous effort there.”

So, Northern Colorado won’t get to take part in March Madness this year, but advancing to any kind of Division I postseason tournament is still a huge accomplishment for a team that just three years ago was rated as the worst -- the absolute bottom of the barrel -- college basketball team in the nation.

The NIT will make its selections Sunday night, following the NCAA Tournament selection show, and maybe the Bears will be included in that historic field. Maybe they’ll get an invite to the CBI or the CIT.

Regardless, Northern Colorado will play another game this year. And for now, from where this program has come in such a short time, that’s what this year’s Bears will have to hang their hats on.

“This has been one of the best seasons in the history of the school,” Boyle said. “We’ve set a lot of different records and reached a lot of benchmarks this year, and we had another chance to break another tonight and write some more history.

“But, more than that, it’s all about where this program was three years ago and where we sat tonight. We’re hurting because we’ve got heightened expectations … and those have come in a short, short time. We’ve had to scratch and claw all the way from the bottom, and these guys expected to win this tournament and represent this league on the highest stage. I couldn’t be more proud of this program and what it’s beginning to represent.”