DILLON -- Another postseason of basketball excellence has Rocky Mountain College headed back to Kansas City for the NAIA men's national championship tournament.
The fifth-seeded Battlin' Bears earned an automatic berth to nationals Tuesday night, leading most of the way and knocking off second-seeded Montana Western 68-52 at Straugh Gymnasium for the Frontier Conference tournament title.
Malachi Roberts led the charge for Rocky with 18 points and Don Parham added 15 as the Bears overwhelmed the Bulldogs -- ranked 15th nationally -- with their stretches of hot shooting, tough rebounding and tight defense.
Now it's on to Kansas City, Mo., where the 32-team, single-elimination tournament will be played March 13-19 at Municipal Auditorium. Unranked Rocky, 21-12, will find out on Wednesday evening who its first-round opponent will be.
The pairings are expected to be announced at around 6:15 p.m. during a selection show on www.NAIA.org
In claiming its first Frontier tournament title since 2003, the Bears will be returning to the national championships for the first time since 2009, when Rocky won it all.
"It's great to see another group of kids get an opportunity to represent the Frontier Conference and Rocky Mountain College," Rocky coach Bill Dreikosen said. "We've got a lot of work in front of us, but it's fun work.
"It's an opportunity and we want to take advantage of this opportunity, like we did the last time."
This will be Rocky's seventh appearance at nationals -- and fourth trip under Dreikosen.
The Bears are riding a five-game winning streak, and have won eight of their last nine outings.
Rocky, which enjoyed a double-digit lead throughout much of the second half against Western, shot 56 percent from the field against the Bulldogs after halftime and held a 42-28 rebounding advantage on the night.
"I think they're just really believing right now," Dreikosen said of his Bears. "They expect to go out and play well and they're playing together. I'm really proud of this group of guys."
Rocky's convincing victory over the Bulldogs capped an improbable road for the Bears, who beat the Frontier's Nos. 4, 1 and 2 seeds on the road on their way to securing their ticket to nationals.
"They wanted to finish it off, you could see it in their eyes," Dreikosen said of his team's latest effort. "They wanted to keep playing and keep going."
The Bears' tournament victims -- Westminster College, Lewis-Clark State and Western -- were a combined 41-2 on their home courts this season.
"Everybody had a dream about something like this," Roberts said of Rocky's big finish. "When that (final) buzzer went off, that was the conclusion. That was the exclamation point. It's an amazing feeling.
"Now the lights are on (for nationals). I believe we're ready. We plan on doing some big things."
Western, 22-9, is expected to receive an at-large berth to nationals, but the Bulldogs struggled with their shooting against the quick and aggressive Bears.
Jordan Overstreet led Western with 15 points, but the Bulldogs shot just 33 percent on the night, including going 6 of 32 from 3-point range.
"Defensively I felt we were able to keep them out of rhythm for most of the game," Dreikosen said.
Rocky was ahead 36-28 at halftime, using a 15-2, six-minute run en route to building that advantage.
Roberts tied the game at 24-all with a 3-pointer and the Bears got on a roll from there in taking a 36-26 lead. Among the highlights: a 3-pointer from the corner by Joe Stulc and a three-point play by Parham after a steal, a driving layup and a foul shot.
Besides his 15 points, Parham also wound up with six steals and six assists.
Joel Barndt, who finished the night with 11 points and eight rebounds, nailed two quick baskets after halftime and put Rocky up by 12, 40-28. The Bears maintained a double-digit lead for most of the second half, building as much as an 18-point spread.
"We've been taking the games one by one," Roberts said of Rocky's postseason performance. "As far as this being the biggest one, it was. Everyone played their best basketball because we knew everything was on the line."