Big Sky Men's Basketball Champions
A 20-point halftime deficit on the home court at the conference's top-seeded team? If you're the Grizzlies, that's no reason to panic. And if you're senior guard Anthony Johnson, that's no problem.
Johnson hit a jumper with 11 seconds left to give Montana its second lead of the night to cap a 66-65 comeback win over the Weber State Wildcats on Wednesday, March 10. With the victory, the Grizzlies claimed the Big Sky Conference Championship and a spot in the NCAA tournament.
Johnson had a Big Sky tournament record 42 points, including 34 second-half points. He scored the last 21 points of the game for Montana.
The Griz also got help from Will Cherry, who forced a turnover with two seconds left in the game to seal the victory. Derek Selvig was the only other Griz in double figures with 12 points. He also had seven rebounds. Brian Qvale had six blocks and pulled down 14 rebounds.
The Griz struggled in the first half, scoring only 20 points on 28 percent shooting and giving the ball away 14 times.
Coach Wayne Tinkle wasn't pleased with the first-half performance.
"We had some imposters in there in the first half," Tinkle said. "We sent the bus back to the hotel at halftime and went and got our real team."
During the intermission, the Grizzly coaches called on Johnson to step up.
"We told him to lead," Tinkle said. "Not just statistically, but as an emotional leader."
The performance that followed earned Johnson a school record for points in a game. The previous record was 40 points by Bob Cope in 1948 against Gonzaga and 40 by Michael Ray Richardson in 1976 against Montana State University.
It also was a record for most points scored in a game at the Dee Events Center, most during a Big Sky Championship Tournament and most in a championship game. In fact, Johnson outscored the entire Weber State team 34-25 in the second half.
The Montana Grizzlies will open the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship as the No. 14 seed in the East Region, facing off against the No. 3 University of New Mexico Lobos in San Jose, Calif., on Thursday, March 18, at 7:50 p.m. MDT.
By the time Griz were welcomed back to Missoula from the Big Sky championship with a parade through downtown, national media were already beginning to take notice. The day after the win, the Salt Lake Tribune described Johnson’s game as "an electrifying performance that will not be exceeded by any player on any team in the upcoming NCAAs."
On March 11, USA Today ran a cover story on the Sports section about Johnson and his wife, Shaunte Nance-Johnson, who plays at guard for the Lady Griz. The women played in their own Big Sky Conference championship tournament March 12. The article noted that if the Lady Griz won, Johnson "and Shaunte will be the Astaire and Rogers of selection Sunday — a rare husband-and-wife team heading to respective Big Dances."
And on March 17, The New York Times ran a story about Johnson headlined, "Montana's Star Guard Has Taken the Ball, and Life, in His Hands."