March 2, 2011

On top of the Sky! Men's basketball earns first crown since 1989

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GREELEY -- It's been the dream since day one, and the victory party Wednesday night was as sweet as could have been imagined for Northern Colorado seniors Devon Beitzel, Chris Kaba, Neal Kingman and Taylor Montgomery.

Beitzel matched his jersey number with a career-high 32 points, and Northern Colorado wrapped up its first Big Sky Conference championship with an 84-54 dismantling of Sacramento State at a packed and rocking Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion.

The Bears (19-10, 13-3 Big Sky), just four years removed from a 4-24 record in their first year as a NCAA Division I program, cemented their place in the Big Sky on Wednesday with their most-lopsided conference win since joining the league in 2006.

Northern Colorado finished a game ahead of Montana (20-9, 12-4) in this year's Big Sky regular-season race to earn its first conference crown in 21 seasons. The Bears will take the No. 1 seed and hosting rights into next Tuesday and Wednesday's Big Sky Championship semifinals and final.

Northern Colorado is now 12-0 at home this season for just their third undefeated home record in 107 years, and the Bears are 25-2 at Butler-Hancock over the last two years.

Tickets for all three games next week are available for purchase immediately. The semifinal games will be broadcast on Altitude, while the final will air nationally on ESPN2 and Westwood One radio.

"I don't really know what to say," Beitzel said. "This is what we've been working for all year, the last five years. This is what all the hours in the gym, in the weight room, together ... this is what it's all about. This has been the dream since d ay one, and it's incredible to see it finally accomplished.

"We've been through so much together, and this is a dream come true. This is where we wanted to be. This has always been the goal. I know last year we won 25 games, but that was never the goal. The goal was the Big Sky championship and we got it."

Beitzel has put the Bears on his back all season, but his effort Wednesday -- on Senior Night -- was one for the ages. He finished 11-of-19 from the field and 4-of-9 from three-point range and scored at will, putting in more points than he has in all but one of his 112 career games played (Northern Arizona; Dec. 29, 2008).

Elliott Lloyd, Tate Unruh and Mike Proctor backed him with nine points apiece, and Lloyd served up a career-high eight assists.

The Northern Colorado team on the court Wednesday looked nothing like the team that ended its pre-Christmas schedule with a 78-75 loss at Louisiana Monroe and a 4-7 record.

"I really don't have the words," Northern Colorado coach B.J. Hill said. "This group of kids, after going 4-7, and a lot of people doubting them, they just bucked up at Christmas, we got healthy, and they just bought in. We tried to make it as simple as possible, let them concentrate on just a couple things, and they got it done.

"These kids deserve all the credit in the world. I've got a great staff and a great group of guys to coach."

Kingman (six points, eight rebounds), Montgomery (four points) and Kaba (eight points) ended their Northern Colorado regular-season careers with solid efforts. Between the Bears four seniors, only Montgomery wasn't a part of that 4-24 provisional Division I team in 2006-07.

All told, Beitzel, Kaba, Kingman and Montgomery totaled nearly 4,000 points in their time with the Bears and were a part of 75 wins and three postseason qualifying squads.

Not bad for a group that drew scant interest following high school.

"This group had two Division I offers besides us, out of the four of them," Hill said. "That tells you an awful lot about their character and what their makeup is."

Beitzel scored the first eight points for the Bears against the Hornets (7-21, 4-12), and his 3-pointer a couple minutes into the game put Northern Colorado ahead for good at 5-2. The Bears led 39-24 at halftime and the rout was on.

Beitzel's back-to-back conventional three-point plays at 14:39 and 14:07 in the second half put the dagger in Sacramento State, which entered the game 4-4 in its previous eight Big Sky games.

Freshman Jackson Carbajal, who led the Hornets with 17 points, put in a 3-pointer with 29 seconds left for the game's final points, and Northern Colorado freshman Paul Garnica dribbled out the clock while the Northern Colorado student section echoed "Big Sky Champs!" off Butler-Hancock's brick interior.

When the clock expired, Hill exhanged handshakes with the Sacramento State coaches and players and then windmilled the Northern Colorado students out onto the court to join in on the Bears' championship celebration.

"This is a vision and a dream we had five years ago when we got here," Hill said. "It culminated tonight."