Montana claims Big Sky title, denies Lillard chance in Big Dance

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Damian Lillard was determined to get Weber State into the NCAA tournament. But one guy wasn’t enough against Montana’s starting five.

The Grizzlies’ starters played all but nine minutes and scored every Montana point in an 85-66 win in Wednesday’s Big Sky tournament championship. It’s Montana’s second automatic bid in the last three years and ninth overall.

It didn’t start that way, though.

Lillard, the nation’s second-leading scorer (24.5 ppg) opened the game with a 3-pointer and scored eight of the Wildcats’ first 21 points as they staked 21-10 lead midway through the first half. Montana cut it to five at the half, grabbed a lead barely six minutes in, then never looked back.

Guard Kareem Jamar couldn’t miss (23 points, 5 of 8 from deep), forward Mathias Ward (23 points, 8 rebounds) couldn’t be contained and guard Will Cherry ran it all, dishing six assists to go with 13 points and three steals.

Lillard finished with 29 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists and was clearly the best player on the court. But his reluctance to take over the game by driving to the basket until late in the game ensured Montana (25-6) not only won its 14 straight, but posted its best record since the 1992 season.

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