When University of Montana guard Will Cherry let fly a three-pointer with less than a minute remaining in the Big Sky Conference championship game against Weber State, 7,000 Griz fans were on their feet before the ball was through the net. The basket put UM up 62-57 and incited in the crowd that rare tingle of connectivity that reminds us of why we love sports: everyone at Dahlberg Arena knew the Wildcats weren't making a comeback. Griz Nation finally had something to smile about.
Of course, if you are a Griz basketball fan, you've been smiling all season. The Griz won an all-time best 25 straight conference games (dating back to the end of last season) and finished the year with a 19-1 conference record. Head coach Wayne Tinkle has now led UM to three NCAA tournament bids in the last four years and been named Big Sky Coach of the Year two years running.
Not to be outdone, the Lady Griz also punched their ticket to the NCAA tournament with a victory in front of the hometown crowd. The win marked legendary coach Robin Selvig's 798th career victory and 20th March Madness appearance. He was also named the conference's coach of the year.
But the vibe in Dahlberg Arena last Saturday wasn't only about records, trophies and brackets. Since Dec. 2011, Griz Nation has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Allegations of sexual assaults recently saw one Griz running back sentenced to prison and a quarterback acquitted after a trial that garnered national attention. In Missoula, the publicity has made pledging your allegiance to the maroon and silver a sometimes polarizing statement that has little to say about sports.
Thank Dr. Naismith for basketball.
Tinkle and Selvig's squads are shining at a time when UM needs them most, and they are reminding the skeptics why people gravitate toward fandom. Rare is the feeling of jumping to your feet in unison with 7,000 other people, and rare is the sight of a 6'9" men's basketball coach throwing his hands in the air and stomping around like a gloating mama chicken. And when you are a Griz fan, rare is the national television broadcast where a sports analyst talks about your team, as CBS's Seth Davis did last Sunday evening when discussing Syracuse's second round NCAA tournament game against the heavy underdog from Montana.
He's calling for an upset.