MISSOULA — There’s no 2-minute warning in basketball, but the Montana Grizzlies heard it anyway.
“They dialed it up a notch in the last couple of minutes and we didn’t have an answer,” Eastern Washington coach Jim Hayford said after the Eagles fell 74-66 to the Grizzlies in the Big Sky Conference semifinals Tuesday night.
In a game that included 14 lead changes and five ties, the Grizzlies outscored the upset-minded Eagles 13-4 down the stretch to put themselves within a game of the NCAA tournament.
The Grizzlies (24-6) will face Weber State tonight at noisy Dahlberg Arena for the Big Sky tournament title and the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA tournament which begins next week.
The Eagles finished 15-17 in Hayford’s first year - but the last for seniors Cliff Colimon, Laron Griffin and Cliff Ederaine, who combined for all but eight of the Eagles’ points.
“There were a lot of tears because there were four players who realized they played their last college basketball game,” Hayford said.
“Cliff played a superb game – it was everything you could ever want from a senior. Griffin played great with 15 points and 14 rebounds, and Ederaine was just cutting them up in the first half.”
But in the end, it was a late surge, punctuated by Montana guard Kareem Jamar, that ended the Eagles’ season.
With Eastern leading 62-61 with 1:45 to play, Montana guard Will Cherry hit a layup and a free throw to put the Griz ahead for good.
Thirty seconds later, Montana forward Mathias Ward – the Grizzlies’ leading scorer – slammed it home off an assist from Cherry. Jamar put the game a way with a layup and two free throws to make it 70-62 with 35 seconds left.
The started that way too, but quickly turned in Eastern’s favor.
Montana took a 15-9 lead 6 minutes into the game, but Parker Kelly cut that in half with a three from the corner.
A few minutes later, Griffin gave the Eagles their first lead of the game, 18-17, on a layin and free throw, beginning a 19-3 Eagle run – the biggest by either team.
While the Grizzlies missed 12 of 13 shots, many from close-in, a layin by Ederaine gave the Eagles a 31-20 advantage with 5:16 left in the half, silencing a crows of 5,563.
The surge was sparked largely by Colimon, who scored a game-high 27 points.
“I felt real confident out there,” Colimon said.
Then the game slowly turned as the Grizzlies put their game plan into action.
“Our focus was to continued to pound it in and pound it in,” Montana coach Wayne Tinkle said. “We missed a boatload of layups or it doesn’t come down to making a couple of plays with a minute to go.”
In the end the Eagles committed 31 fouls, and the Grizzlies took advantage by making 27 of 32 free-throw attempts. “We knew it would be a war,” said Griffin.
“We just fouled a little bit too much,” said Hayford, who also lamented 10 second-half turnovers.
“A big part of our game plan on the offensive plan was to attack get them in foul trouble and get to the line,” Tinkle said.
For the half, Eastern hit half its field-goal attempts – 15 out of 30 – whil the Griz made just 8 of 30 and 1 of 9 from long range.
But the Grizzlies stayed in the game by going inside and drawing 11 Eastern fouls and hitting 13 of 16 at the free-throw line.
No one did that better than Ward, the only Grizzly starter not named to either the first or second all-conference team. Ward led the Grizzlies with 19 points, including 12 for 12 at the line.
“He’s been one of the best post players we’ve had to face this year,” Hayford said of Ward, who scored 28 on the Eagles here in December.