Rocky Mountain College may not be the giant killers this time around in the Frontier Conference men’s basketball tournament, but the Battlin’ Bears’ victories are still pretty dramatic.
Matt Strickland knocked down the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:06 to play and fellow senior Joel Barndt buried two clutch free throws with 9.3 seconds remaining as top-seeded Rocky rallied and then fought off sixth-seeded University of Great Falls 62-59 on Friday night in the semifinals played out before a large Fortin Center crowd.
“It was just hard fought,” Strickland said of the game in the joyous aftermath of the Rocky locker room. “We were struggling down the stretch and I just said ‘I have to personally do whatever I can for my team to pull out the W.’
“Man, we really pulled it out. I’m so happy. I just didn’t want to lose that. I did not want to lose that game.”
Rocky, 22-7, will be back at the Fortin Center at 7 p.m. on Monday to face Utah’s Westminster College, the tournament’s No. 2 seed, in the championship game.
The Griffins defeated fifth-seeded Lewis-Clark State 90-84 in Salt Lake City during Friday’s other semifinal clash.
“Westminster plays as hard as anybody in the league, every night, every possession,” Rocky coach Bill Dreikosen said. “We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
The Frontier tournament champion will automatically qualify for the 77th annual NAIA national championships, set for March 19-25 at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Mo.
Rocky, ranked 11th nationally, is already a strong candidate for an at-large berth to the 32-team tournament.
The Bears, who have won the Frontier tournament three times since 2002 as a fourth, fifth or sixth seed, were led by the double-doubles turned in by seniors Barndt (21 points, 12 rebounds) and Jeremy Nicolas (20 points and 12 rebounds) against the Argos’ tough defense.
Strickland, who came through with the night’s biggest basket, finished with six points — all on 3-pointers in the final 3:30.
“Huge,” Barndt said of Strickland’s go-ahead shot. “I picked him up and I hugged him. I picked him up and I thanked him because he nailed a big shot, and I think that’s what we’re supposed to do as seniors.”
Against UGF, which has been a nemesis in recent years, the Bears, who raced ahead 12-0 in the opening minutes, had to survive a frantic final minute after Strickland’s 3-pointer from the right wing put the Bears up 60-57.
The Argos’ Marcel Towns missed a shot at the other end, but Rocky wound up turning the ball over on a five-second call with 41.4 seconds left.
UGF’s Maleek Singleton quickly responded by scoring on a drive with 28 seconds remaining to make it a 60-59 spread.
With the Argos applying intense pressure, Towns created an immediate turnover by tipping away Barndt’s inbounds pass.
“Gosh, that kid is an athlete,” Barndt said later. “He just went up and tipped it. We had to make it interesting.”
Towns, however, couldn’t get a fadeaway jumper to fall. The Argos, though, retained possession of the ball after the rebound went out of bounds off the Bears with 16.7 seconds left.
Following a Rocky timeout, UGF’s Naren Maynard attempted a shot from near the 3-point line at the top of the key, but the Bears’ Nicolas deftly blocked it.
Teammate Barndt came up with the loose ball and was fouled, with his two free throws giving the Bears a 62-59 cushion.
UGF’s TJ Harris, who was well guarded by Strickland, had his 3-point attempt from the wing fall short in the closing seconds.
“Great Falls and Rocky played a great Frontier Conference game,” Dreikosen said. “That’s how close this league was from the sixth-place team to the first-place team. That’s how close it was night-in and night-out.
“I think the fans can understand now. It’s all about the competition level out there. You have to be ready every night.”
UGF, which finished its season at 18-13, was led by the 16 points and 10 rebounds of Singleton. Harris wound up with 14 points and Towns 13.
The Bears, who trailed by as many as seven points (48-41) in the second half, shot just 37 percent from the field, missing on several drives and close-range shots. Rocky also committed 13 turnovers — two of them in the last minute.
“We did everything we could to lose this game,” Strickland said. “We fought through it. We kept getting stops, kept our hopes alive and we got out of it with a W.”
“The maturity to get through that and move on to the next play, I’m proud of our kids for that,” Dreikosen said.
Rocky was playing its first game in nearly two weeks, while UGF was a week removed from an upset win at third-seeded Montana State Northern.
“Give UGF credit,” Barndt said. “They came in, they were hot. They played really well. They played their game. It just comes down to one team has got to win and one team has got to lose.”