Martin Breunig

Benjamin Zack/Standard-Examiner via AP

Big Sky Conference Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards

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The Big Sky tournament underwent massive changes in advance of this season, as all 12 teams will get to participate and a neutral site will be used. Reno will be the site this year, which is a big difference from seasons past in which the top seed served as the host. As expected Weber State and Montana were the top two combatants for the regular season crown, with Randy Rahe’s Wildcats claiming the title despite losing league Player of the Year candidate Joel Bolomboy for two games due to injury. The Wildcats and Grizzlies will be the favorites in Reno, but getting to the title game will be a challenge for both.

The Bracket

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When: March 8, 10-12

Where: Reno Events Center, Reno, Nevada

Final: March 12, 8:45 p.m. (ESPNU)

Favorite: Weber State

Many of the players in Randy Rahe’s current rotation were members of the team that reached the NCAA tournament two seasons ago, which should help Weber State even with the changes to the format and location of the Big Sky tournament. Of course it also helps to have talent, and there’s no shortage of that in Ogden. It all starts with the Big Sky’s best big man in Joel Bolomboy, and guard Jeremy Senglin (17.2 ppg in Big Sky games) is a force to be reckoned with as well. And with nine players playing at least 15 minutes per game in conference play, the Wildcats have the depth needed to navigate three games in three days.

And if they lose?: Montana

The Griz missed out on a share of the Big Sky regular season title as they lost to Northern Colorado Saturday, but Travis DeCuire’s team won six of their final eight games with the other loss coming at the hands of Weber State. Martin Breunig has been one of the conference’s best players, and the play of guards Walter Wright and Michael Oguine has been key as expected starter Mario Dunn missed 12 games due to injury. Only Eastern Washington was better in conference play from an offensive efficiency standpoint, and defensively the Griz ranked first in the Big Sky in both defensive rebounding and three-point percentage and third in field goal percentage.

Other Contenders:

  • Idaho: The Vandals shot 38.2 percent from three in Big Sky play (Chad Sherwood shot 45.1 percent), and they were also the best team in the conference in offensive rebounding percentage. Defensively, only Weber State was better from an efficiency standpoint.
  • Idaho State: The Bengals have two guards who can put points on the board in Ethan Telfair and Geno Luzcando. But they’ll most likely have to figure out their matchup issues with No. 5 North Dakota if they’re to make a run.
  • North Dakota: Brian Jones’ team swept Idaho State during the regular season, and they also split the season series with Weber State. And with a player as gifted as guard Quinton Hooker, UND could very well get to the title game.

Big Sky Player of the Year: Joel Bolomboy, Weber State

Bolomboy was outstanding throughout for the regular season champions, averaging 18.2 points and 12.8 rebounds per game while also shooting 59.6 percent from the field. Bolomboy’s an incredibly tough matchup to deal with in the post, and when fouled he converted his free throws at a solid clip (73.8 percent in Big Sky games) as well.

Big Sky Coach of the Year: Bill Evans, Idaho State

Picked to finish dead last in the Big Sky preseason poll, Evans’ Bengals arrive in Reno as the four-seed. Idaho State won 11 conference games this season, with the perimeter tandem of Ethan Telfair and Geno Luzcando leading the way offensively. Those two combined to average 40.2 points and 4.6 steals per game in Big Sky play, and collectively the Bengals are a much-improved outfit from a season ago.

First-Team All-Big Sky:

  • Joel Bolomboy, Weber State (POY)
  • Ethan Telfair, Idaho State: One of the Big Sky’s most impactful newcomers, Telfair averaged 23.9 points and 5.7 assists per game in conference play (league leader in both categories).
  • Quinton Hooker, North Dakota: Hooker averaged 20.6 points per game on 52.3 percent shooting in Big Sky play, while also averaging four assists and two steals per contest.
  • Martin Breunig, Montana: The senior forward averaged 19.2 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, shooting 64.8 percent from the field.
  • Venky Jois, Eastern Washington: Averaging 18.0 points and 9.1 rebounds per contest in Big Sky play, Jois led the conference in field goal percentage (70.6).

Prediction: Weber State outlasts Montana to take the automatic bid.

Wiltjer, Sabonis help No. 20 Gonzaga edge Montana 61-58

AP Photo/Young Kwak
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SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) Coming off a rare loss at home, No. 20 Gonzaga barely avoided another defeat at the McCarthey Athletic Center.

“We’re very lucky to get out of this with a win,” coach Mark Few said after the Bulldogs held off Montana 61-58 Tuesday night.

Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis each scored 16 points for Gonzaga, which recently lost at home to then-No. 19 Arizona 68-63.

Wiltjer made two free throws with 7.5 seconds left for the final points of the game. A 3-point attempt by Montana’s Brandon Gfeller bounced off the front rim as time expired.

“I think every one is going in as soon as it leaves my hand,” Gfeller said, “but that isn’t the way it worked out tonight.”

Sabonis had 10 rebounds and Wiltjer nine for the Bulldogs (6-2).

Josh Perkins scored 13 points for Gonzaga, including a free throw and a jumper in the final minute to erase Montana’s 58-56 lead.

Eric McClellan had 11 for Gonzaga.

Martin Breunig led Montana (3-4) with 20 points, 18 coming after halftime. Walter Wright added 14.

“I was just trying to be more aggressive (in the second half) . in the first half, we were not aggressive enough,” Breunig said.

Few said Breunig “is one of the best low-post players we’ll play this season.”

Both teams struggled to score consistently. Gonzaga shot 40 percent from the field and Montana hit just 36.1 percent. Turnovers also were a problem for both teams at times.

“It was the best defense we’ve played since I’ve been at Montana,” Grizzlies coach Travis DeCuire said.

Gonzaga trailed 11-9 before holding Montana without a point for six minutes during an 8-0 run.

The Bulldogs led 29-23 at the break and scored the opening basket of the second half. Montana took the lead with a 12-0 run, when Gonzaga missed seven shots and had four turnovers.

The Grizzlies then missed their next seven shots, and Gonzaga’s 8-0 run pushed the Bulldogs ahead 39-35.

Gfeller, who scored nine points, tied the game with a 3-pointer with 1:07 to go. Jack Lopez was fouled at the same time and sank two free throws to give Montana a 58-56 lead. In the final minute, Perkins sank one of two free throws before hitting a jumper prior to Wiltjer’s final free throws.

“To get rewarded with a `W’ when we feel we didn’t play very good is a good thing,” Few said. “I don’t want to take anything away from Montana. I think they’re going to have a great season.”

TIP-INS

Montana: The Grizzlies and Bulldogs were Big Sky Conference rivals from 1963-64 through 1978-79, when Gonzaga left for the West Coast Conference. The teams had not met since Nov. 11, 2007. … Montana has lost the past 10 meetings.

Gonzaga: Senior center Przemek Karnowski was sidelined for the third consecutive game with back problems. Few labels Karnowski “our best rim protector (on defense).”

GFELLER OVERLOOKED?

Gfeller grew up 60 miles south of Spokane in the small town of Colfax, Washington. The junior guard said Gonzaga showed no interest in him beyond “maybe a couple emails.”

RARE EMPTY SEATS

The Bulldogs announced the usual sellout crowd of 6,000, but perhaps 100 seats in Gonzaga’s notoriously rowdy student section were empty. Some students may have been focusing on next week’s final exams.

UP NEXT

Montana visits Washington on Saturday.

Gonzaga hosts UCLA on Saturday.