Grizzlies believe magic is in the air

SAN JOSE, Calif. – The team representing the Big Sky Conference and hailing from a state with a similarly grand nickname experienced an eye-opening arrival in San Jose for its first-round East Region matchup with New Mexico.

“When we first came here, I said, ‘Wow,’ ” Montana senior guard Anthony Johnson said. “This is way bigger than anything back in Montana.”

Anthony Johnson and Montana come into the tournament with a load of confidence.
(Colin E Braley / AP)

Johnson isn’t easily overwhelmed. His stirring second-half performance in the Big Sky championship game against Weber State put 14th-seeded Montana in this spot. Montana trailed 40-20 at halftime before Johnson took over, scoring 34 points in the second half, including the Grizzlies’ final 21, in a 66-65 victory.

It was the school’s first conference championship since 2006, when Montana, seeded 12th, went on to upset fifth-seeded Nevada in the first round before falling to Boston College.

“We’ve got a pretty spirited leader in Anthony [Johnson],” fourth-year Grizzlies coach Wayne Tinkle said, “and he really believes this is a year of destiny for us … magical things in the air.

“If that’s what has gotten them to this point, I’m not going to burst their bubble. We’ll let them believe that.”

When Johnson knows, he knows.

Five years ago, he proposed to his now-wife Shaunte – a starting guard on Montana’s women’s team – after the couple had been dating for just two weeks. The man seems to know a thing or two about destiny.

“Destiny” might be a word used often this weekend because you don’t have to strain too hard to hear the upset chatter coming out of San Jose.

In the West bracket, there’s 12th-seeded UTEP and its imposing frontcourt combination of Derrick Caracter and Arnett Moultrie posing a threat to fifth-seeded Butler. Nobody is expecting to see fourth-seeded Vanderbilt run away from 13th-seeded Murray State, a team so balanced all five members of its starting unit average between 9.5 and 10.6 points per game. And in the other East Region game in San Jose, Washington’s backcourt prowess, namely sophomore guard Isaiah Thomas, has many thinking sixth-seeded Marquette will have its hands full with the 11th-seeded Huskies.

The buzz on Montana? It must have been sent via courier through Glacier National Park. The talk of Thursday’s first-round matchup has centered on New Mexico junior swingman Darington Hobson, the Mountain West Conference player of the year and one of the most versatile players in the country.

“That’s a player,” Johnson said.

“Yeah, he’s a matchup nightmare,” Tinkle added.

Hobson, one of only two Division I players to average at least 15 points, nine rebounds and four assists this season (Ohio State’s Evan Turner is the other), ruffled a few feathers when brazenly stating New Mexico was destined for the Elite Eight.

The bulletin board battle wasn’t one-sided. Johnson was quoted as saying Montana had been priming itself for a matchup against a Big East power, not a team such as New Mexico.

“You have to pay attention to stuff like that,” Lobos guard Dairese Gary said. “To me, that’s a slap in the face.”

Tinkle dismissed the exchange as the natural result of having 18- to 22-year-olds thrust into the national spotlight and becoming a little over-excited.

Tinkle is focused on the task at hand. He’s worried about that matchup nightmare: “We’re going to face some pretty big obstacles trying to limit [Hobson’s] impact on the game.” He’s also concerned about establishing an inside game and alleviating some of the pressure he knows Johnson will face as the Grizzlies’ primary scoring option.

Having been an assistant on that 2006 team that knocked off Nevada, he knows anything goes.

“Our guys know that can happen,” Tinkle said. “Again, they really feel like this is something special going on.”

Johnson must have felt that against Weber State, and when he got down on a knee five years ago offering a rubber band as an engagement ring. Tinkle may have felt the same when – selfishly, he admits – he hoped to land in the San Jose bracket to be closer to his daughter, Joslyn, who will play for Stanford in nearby Palo Alto in the women’s NCAA tournament this weekend.

“If I have to miss her game Saturday night,” Tinkle said, “it’ll be a good thing.”

Matt Romig is a senior editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Matt a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Mar 18, 2010