GREELEY, Colo. – Devon Beitzel scored 13 of his 27 points over the final 5 minutes, helping top-seeded Northern Colorado earn a spot in the NCAA tournament for the first time in school history with a 65-60 win over Montana on Wednesday night in the finals of the Big Sky tournament.
The Bears (21-10) have only been postseason-eligible since 2007 after moving up from the Division II ranks.
Their capacity crowd stormed the floor moments after the win, mobbing Beitzel and Co. after Northern Colorado dethroned Montana (21-10), the defending conference tournament champions. The nearly 3,000 fans jumped over tables and chairs to sprint to midcourt.
Beitzel, the league's regular season and tournament MVP, put the finishing touches on the win by hitting two free throws in the waning seconds, setting off the celebration.
"It's one of the greatest feelings I've ever felt in my entire life," said Beitzel, who was carried around the court on the shoulders of fans. "It's unreal."
Neal Kingman had 10 points and Mike Proctor came off the bench to grab nine boards to spur for the Bears, who trailed by as many as eight points in the first half.
Montana had four players score in double figures, led by Art Steward with 16. Will Cherry had 13 points before fouling out late in the game.
"My guys battled through a lot to make this a game," said Montana coach Wayne Tinkle, who had three players foul out. "We showed effort with everything we were going through."
The Bears took the lead for good, 50-49, on a long fadeaway 3-pointer by Beitzel with 4:49 remaining.
Kingman then drew a charge and followed that up by knocking down a shot in the lane, building the advantage to 52-49.
Northern Colorado was poised to extend the lead even more, but Chris Kaba missed three free throws and was called for an offensive charge as he ran into 7-footer Derek Selvig, who was playing with four fouls.
No matter, Beitzel simply took over from there. He was 14 of 17 from the line for the game.
But he was the exception at the line as the rest of the team hit just 4 of 18 free throws. This after a near flawless performance in a 73-70 win over Northern Arizona the night before.
The Grizzlies were without starting guard Shawn Stockton after he injured his right hamstring during a win over Weber State in the semifinals the night before.
With a frontline that featured 6-foot-11 Brian Qvale, Montana kept feeding the ball inside and raced out to an early lead in the first half.
The Grizzlies also bottled up Beitzel, the conference's leading scorer, by constantly rotating fresh players on him.
Beitzel didn't hit his first field goal until 6:32 remaining in the first half. But then he found his rhythm to help the Bears head into the locker room tied at 31.
He finished the opening half with 11 points, including Northern Colorado's final six points.
Beitzel has reminded some of a much smaller, and much less heralded version of BYU's Jimmer Fredette, the nation's leading scorer.
Like Fredette, Beitzel's hardly bashful about putting up shots from just about anywhere on the floor.
Northern Colorado has just four postseason wins since 1994, one of which came when it was a member of the Division II Northern Central Conference.
In contrast, the Grizzlies have won five conference tournament titles in that same span.
Just five years ago, the Bears were one of the worst teams in the nation as they transitioned into the Division I ranks. Northern Colorado finished that season 4-24 in Tad Boyle's first year in charge.
Since then, the Bears have made constant strides, turning in a 25-8 mark last season in Boyle's final year before bolting for the University of Colorado.
B.J. Hill was promoted to head coach this season and guided the Bears to their first regular-season conference title in more than two decades, allowing Northern Colorado to host the league tournament.
That was quite a coup for the Bears, especially with their raucous fans cramming into tiny Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion, which holds around 3,000 spectators.
The team finished 15-0 at Butler-Hancock this season, the third time it has gone undefeated at home in its 107-year history.
Northern Colorado alum and Colorado Rockies team owner Dick Monfort was in attendance, sitting courtside directly across from the Bears' bench.
A longtime supporter, Monfort was quite animated, jumping out of his seat several times to protest calls.
"I wouldn't have missed this game for anything," Monfort said.
With only 480 seats in the student section, and available only on a first-come basis, eager fans camped out in front of the arena, setting up tents to take shelter from the windy weather.
Four hours before tip, the line was so long it snaked around the side of the building.