Last week, in my mind I envisioned writing a recap of the crazy four days of dual Big Sky Conference tournament madness that I got to have a front row seat for. But, things happen and you change your mind.
I mean heck, I very well could have stayed true to my initial plan. I could have wrote about the 14 teams, the 12 games, the long days, the team personnel, the conference personnel, the fans, the crazy plays, the storylines, the promotions, the long nights, the challenge to keep the music fresh, the battle to stay awake, the task to block my hunger out, the duty to answer every question I received accurately, the obligation to stay neutral, and so on and so on.
But again, things happen and you change your mind.
Instead of composing a long, drawn out blog post covering my four days working the Big Sky Conference tournaments, I knew driving out of the arena parking lot late Saturday evening that I needed to do something different. While all four days were cool, nothing came close to how special and sweet that last day was. Championship Saturday at the Big Sky Conference tournament in 2013 will go down as one of the best, and most magical, days in Griz history. It deserves recognition all by itself.
Going into Saturday we already had the best case scenario. Both the Lady Griz and Griz basketball teams took care of business in the semis and had dates in the conference championship games with bids to the NCAA tournament on the line. However, the best case scenario in the morning didn’t count for much except that we would have great ticket sales. In all reality, both Montana teams could have dropped the championship games to very good opposing squads. Both the Northern Colorado women and the Weber State men were #2 seeds and had both beaten their respective Montana opponents once already. So while a good feeling circulated at the start of the day, we all knew that it could be replaced with disappointment come the end of it. The only thing to do was play the games out one at a time.
The Lady Griz took the court 100% focused on Saturday afternoon. Giving me a new playlist to cycle through during warm ups, the team was on a mission. The women didn’t really need to get fired up much more but during the National Anthem they did….as a surprise to our fans, we lit off fireworks during and after the Star Spangled banner. I think I am just getting more sensitive in my older age because when the fireworks went off, my eyes got watery. Here we were at The University of Montana, pulling out all the stops to make this experience for all involved as memorable as possible. The fireworks were beautiful, impactful, and for many, unexpected. It raised the adrenaline of not just the players, but everyone in the building.
Montana came out and just kicked butt. The same focus and intensity in warm ups carried over to the game. I had never seen so much emotion out of the team before. While scoring efficiently and shutting down Northern Colorado’s best player, D’shara Strange, the Lady Griz never trailed in the game and won 70-56. In yet another example of striving to make the tournament as special as possible, confetti fell from up above on to the Dahlberg Arena floor. The Lady Griz went from losing in the opening round of the tourney last year to champions of it this year. The players celebrated, Robin Selvig smiled, and the Lady Griz punched a ticket to the NCAA tournament.
I think after the Lady Griz victory, some weight was lifted off the shoulders of a lot of us. We knew we would not get shut out on our home floor. We knew at least one team was going dancing.
During the short period after the Lady Griz game and the start of the men’s championship game, the reality of possibly having both teams going to the NCAA tournament seemed real for the first time. The whole last half of the season I thought about how cool it would be for it to happen, but I knew so many things had to fall in place for it to be a reality. With the women advancing to the Big Dance, only one win was needed to send both basketball programs to the most prestigious collegiate competition there is.
Of course, that “one win” was going to be maybe the toughest of the season.
One word to describe the atmosphere of Dahlberg Arena on Saturday night: Electric. Fans packed the place. Students crammed into the bottom section behind the north basket and overflowed the upper section. Two bands (ours and Weber State’s) went back and forth filling the place with sound. Natalie Jones belted out the National Anthem while fireworks once again blasted through the air. Everybody’s hands went UP when I played “All I Do Is Win.” Come tip off, you couldn’t hear yourself think. Finally, the ref threw the ball in the air and the game started.
The Griz got off to a great start, building a 9 point lead at one time in the first half. However, Weber State clawed back and once halftime hit, the score was tied at 34. After the Super Skippers and UM Dance Team performed during the break, Montana and Weber State came out to play the 24th and final half that had been played on the Dahlberg Arena floor over the last four days.
The first five minutes of the first half went back and forth before Weber State went on a run to lead by five with 12 minutes left. However, the Griz never panicked and with five minutes left, the game was once again changing leads.
Wayne Tinkle was named Big Sky Conference Coach of the Year today. It is no surprise. Coach guided the team through those final minutes and despite some big shots by Weber they could not top Montana. At about the 20 second mark when it became apparent that the Griz would hold on, I left my place at the music table to get ready to go out on the court to cover the celebration. After Weber’s last second half court desperation three-pointer fell short, I hugged our athletic director who was standing right next to me and then ran out on the floor, taking pictures and video of the mosh pit at center court created by the UM student body who had rushed the hardwood. Just like the women’s post-game celebration, confetti fell, awards were given out, nets were cut down, and a ticket to the NCAA tournament was punched.
Two championships and two tickets to the Big Dance on one floor during one day. For a department and a community that has sufferered their fair share of blows over the past 12 months, we needed this. On Saturday, March 16, Grizzly Athletics once again proved that it is the cream of the crop in the Big Sky Conference, perhaps in one of the most dominating fashions ever. The day that Montana punched two tickets to the NCAA tournament on its home court will be remembered and talked about for a long time. The ten games I worked to get to the point of the two championship games? Absolutely worth it…I would have worked 200 games to be a part of what transpired on Saturday. Don’t Blink.