GREELEY, Colo. — Weber State started its Big Sky semifinal game against Montana ice cold — and ended it in a deep freeze.
The Wildcats did not score in the game's final seven-plus minutes and were eliminated by the Grizzlies 57-40 on Tuesday night. It was the third time in the last four seasons that Weber State ended its year in the conference semifinals.
The cause for the Wildcats' loss this time was a disappearing shooting touch. Weber State missed its final 15 shots against the Grizzlies, who closed the game on an 18-0 run.
"We just wore down," said Wildcats center Trevor Morris.
Weber State overcame an icy start in which it missed its first nine shots and didn't score in the game's first seven-plus minutes. The Wildcats then went on a 15-2 run to go up 15-9.
Weber State remained in control through the remainder of the first half, holding Montana to 13 percent (3-for-23) shooting from the field in the first 20 minutes. The Wildcats led 22-12 at halftime.
"Tonight, we sold out in the first half," said Weber State coach Randy Rahe. "The guys played terrific. They played hard. (I) thought we guarded them well, rebounded, did everything we were supposed to do."
But just as they did in last year's Big Sky championship game, the Wildcats gave up a double-digit second-half lead in an elimination game against the Grizzlies. Montana recaptured the lead at 33-32 when Will Cherry made a layup with 9:53 remaining. The lead changed hands six more times before Montana put the clamps on Weber State down the stretch.
"We lost our energy," said Rahe. "I thought we hit a wall. That's really what it came down to. We were the more aggressive team in the first half and they were the more aggressive team in the second half."
Byron Fulton converted a three-point play to give Weber State a 37-35 lead. Scott Bamforth made a 3-pointer to put the Wildcats up 40-39 with 7:46 left in the game, but Weber State was held scoreless the rest of the way.
The Wildcats shot just 21.4 percent against Montana. Bamforth led them in scoring with 10 points. Montana's Brian Qvale dominated with 16 points and 17 rebounds. Cherry also had 16 points.
No one from the Wildcats' program will be satisfied with a moral victory in an elimination game, but they were satisfied with making it this far. They lost their best player and last year's Big Sky MVP, Damian Lillard, to a broken foot in December and still managed to take third place in the conference and advance to the semifinals.
"I just again want to tip my cap to Coach Rahe and the great job of coaching he did this year after losing the best player in the league," said Montana coach Wayne Tinkle, who also correctly noted that the first half of Tuesday's game was really bad TV. "To get on the roll they did to put themselves in this position says a ton about his abilities and the character of his team."
Rahe was more than pleased with the character his team showed in reaching the semifinals without Lillard.
"I couldn't be more proud of the team," he said. "A couple months ago when we had some adversity hit … at one point it looked like it was going to be a tough road. And a lot of teams would have given in, but this team showed as much resiliency and toughness and togetherness, and all the things we want our program to be about as much as any team I've been around. They did a (heck) of a job."