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Ticket Punched: Montana continues to rule over the Big Sky with another conference tournament championship

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(USA Today Sports Images)

Over the last two seasons, Montana has dominated the Big Sky Conference.

The Grizzlies went 15-1 in conference play last year and won the conference tournament. This year they were 19-1 and although they were pushed hard by Weber State in the conference tournament title contest, the game ended like most Montana games the past two seasons: with a win.

The Big Sky title game was close, but a big 3-pointer by Will Cherry with 46 seconds left gave the Grizzlies a 62-57 lead. Montana hit five-of-six free throws after that to seal the 67-64 victory and a second straight NCAA tournament appearance.

For most of the season, even despite some serious injury issues, Montana has simply found ways to come out on top.

Since the start of December, Montana has lost a double overtime game to South Dakota State, a game at Weber State and an overtime game at a very tough Davidson team. That's it in the loss column. Keeping that hot streak alive in the final weeks of the season wasn't easy because Montana was dealt a very tough injury blow.

Mathias Ward, a 6-7 forward who was the Grizzlies' leading scorer at 14.8 points per game and hit 51 percent of his shots from the floor, hasn't played since Feb. 16. His season ended because of foot surgery. Cherry, Montana's star senior point guard who averaged 13.7 points going into Saturday's game, missed games early in the season and three more March games because of a foot injury. Montana struggled a bit without Ward, and it was very tough with Ward and Cherry out, but it kept winning. That couldn't have hurt its confidence heading into the conference tournament. Cherry proved in the Big Sky tournament that he's fine, scoring 21 and 18 points in the Grizzlies' wins.

The Grizzlies are a very efficient offensive team. According to KenPom.com, Montana is 32nd in the nation in 3-point percentage, 24th in 2-point percentage and seventh in free-throw percentage. It also simply has a winning confidence, as Saturday's win clinched its second straight 25-win season.

In last season's tournament Montana got caught with a tough matchup in Wisconsin and was blown out 73-49. The Grizzlies won't get a great seed this year, as most projections have them as a No. 14 or 15 seed. Winning a first-round NCAA game without their leading scorer won't be easy, but with the right matchup their first game this time around should at least be more competitive.

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