University of Northern Colorado Bears one win from NCAA Big Dance: Watch out, Montana

Yesterday, we noted that the University of Northern Colorado Bears might have a clearer path to March Madness than do the higher-profile CU Buffs -- and last night's exciting 73-70 victory over Northern Arizona leaves the Bears one victory from the Big Dance. A win over Montana tonight and they're in. Look below to see UNC's recap of the action, complete with info about this evening's Big Sky showdown.

UNC release:

One more win, and the Bears are in!

GREELEY -- One game. Two halves. 40 minutes.

That's all that stands now between Northern Colorado men's basketball and its first trip to the Big Dance.

March Madness is that close.

The NCAA Tournament is just one victory away.

Devon Beitzel showed his 2011 Big Sky MVP form with 25 points Tuesday, and Chris Kaba backed him with 14 as Northern Colorado erased a seven-point second-half deficit en route to a 73-70 Big Sky Championship semifinal victory inside a packed and rocking Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion.

Northern Colorado (20-10, 13-3 Big Sky), the Championship's top seed for the first time, and undefeated at home this season (13-0) for just the third time in school history, will take on second-seeded Montana (21-9, 12-4) at 7:05 p.m. tomorrow in the 2011 Big Sky Championship Final.

The title game, the Bears' first and the Griz's 14th, will be broadcast nationally on Westwood One Radio and across the world on ESPN2.

Pretty heady stuff for a program that just five years ago was the worst program -- we're talking rock-bottom -- in the NCAA's 2006 final RPI report.

And the whole thing seemed in jeopardy at halftime, after the Lumberjacks (19-12, 9-7) came back from down 24-12 to lead 45-43 at the break. Cameron Jones scored 18 of his team-leading 24 points in the first 20 minutes and NAU put up more points than any Northern Colorado opponent has in Greeley this season.

"I questioned these guys at halftime and asked them how bad they wanted to play tomorrow, and they responded," Northern Colorado coach B.J. Hill said. "We've always been about defense and playing together, and we didn't do that very well to start things. We were much better when we needed it.

"That's two games in a row against a really good team, and a coach I have a ton respect for. It goes to the credit of these four seniors along with their teammates that every time this year they have been presented with a challenge they have just risen to the occasion."

The Bears made a season-most 32 free throws Wednesday, which helped them stave off the Lumberjacks' momentum and overcome a Butler-Hancock high 21 turnovers.

Northern Arizona entered the game as the country's top three-point shooting team at 43 percent on the year, and it looked every bit the part in the first half, making seven-of-17.

The Bears limited the Lumberjacks to just one make from beyond the three-point stripe in the second half (1-11), though, and they slowly climbed out of their hole with the help of an absolutely insane fan base.

"Second half, we as a team just took a challenge to be more physical with them," said Kaba, who scored eight points and swatted two blocks after halftime, playing with an intensity Hill hadn't seen before.

"And we needed it, that's for sure," Hill said.

NAU increased its lead to 50-43 a little more than three minutes into the second half before Northern Colorado finally started to stir.

Neal Kingman, who finished with 10 points and six rebounds, got a tip-in at 15:50 that started to swing the momentum, and Paul Garnica scored two of his five points at 15:18 on a driving, swirling and up-and-under layup that brought the Bears' fans to their feet.

Later, Mike Proctor, who scored all seven of his points and grabbed six of his eight rebounds in a five-minute stretch in the second half, gave the Bears a 53-52 lead they wouldn't relinquish with a free throw at 11:55.

Jones had a chance to tie in the waning seconds, just like he did in the Bears' 72-71 win against NAU just two weeks ago in Greeley. His 3-pointer hit off the back rim and rolled out, though, and wound up in the arms of Beitzel, who finished just one rebound shy of his first career double-double.

He quickly threw his arms in the air, pointed a "One more" finger in the air, as chants of "MVP" rained down from the Northern Colorado student section.

"This is it for me," Beitzel said. "This is my last go, and I want to savor every minute of it. These guys are like family to me, and the bond we've created is second to none. We knew we had to do something there in the second half if we were going to take advantage of this great opportunity.

"We regrouped at halftime, took it on ourselves to play at a championship level, and we're ready for tomorrow night."

It should be a good one.

Championship game tickets to go on sale at 10 a.m. Wednesday

250 individual championship game tickets will go on sale at 10 a.m. Wednesday at the Northern Colorado Ticket Office. Those interested in seeing one of the biggest athletic events in school history should visit the Ticket Office at the University starting at 10 a.m. or call 970-351-4849.

If any seats still remain at 5:30, they can be purchased at the Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion ticket windows.

More from our Sports archive: "CU Buffs basketball team best since Chauncey Billups glory days after defeating Kansas State."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts