GREELEY, Colo. (AP) — Devon Beitzel was carried around the court on the shoulders of fans who had stormed the court.
A fitting tribute since the senior guard carried Northern Colorado to the biggest win in school history.
Beitzel scored 13 of his 27 points over the last 5 minutes, helping the top-seeded Bears earn a spot in the NCAA tournament for the first time with a 65-60 win over Montana on Wednesday night in the final of the Big Sky tournament.
“One of the greatest feelings I’ve ever felt in my entire life,” said Beitzel, the league’s regular season and tournament MVP. “It’s unreal.
“This is the reason why we came here — to turn the program around.”
And turn around the Bears this group did.
Once the dregs of the NCAA, Northern Colorado has now become one of the darlings.
The Bears were 4-24 in 2006-07, and now they’re heading to the dance.
Who they play, where they play, hardly even matters.
They’re just glad to be going.
Still, Northern Colorado (21-10) wouldn’t mind playing just down the road in a regional in the Mile High City.
“I hope that we are in Denver because all these people that were here tonight could enjoy it and take a piece of it with them,” Bears coach B.J. Hill said. “That would be tremendous. … I’ll take these guys anywhere against anybody right now.”
It wasn’t too long ago that hardly anyone showed up to attend a Northern Colorado game.
Suddenly, the Bears have become the rage, fans mobbing Beitzel and Co. after Northern Colorado knocked off Montana (21-10), the defending conference tournament champions. The nearly 3,000 spectators jumped over tables and chairs to sprint to midcourt.
This was quite a splendid sight for Beitzel.
He’s been the Bears’ star all season, reminding some of BYU’s Jimmer Fredette, the nation’s leading scorer, only on a much smaller scale.
Like Fredette, Beitzel’s hardly bashful about putting up shots from just about anywhere on the floor.
Even from deep in the corner and two players smothering him.
With 61 seconds remaining, Beitzel buried a 3-pointer to give the Bears a 57-50 lead.
That was the shot that ended up sinking the Grizzlies.
“I let it go and, luckily for us, it went down,” Beitzel said. “Emotion took over and I was pumped.”
Neal Kingman had 10 points and Mike Proctor came off the bench to grab nine boards to spur 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.
“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 only flaw in the Bears’ win was their free-throw shooting. Outside of Beitzel, who hit 14 of 17, the teams was just 7 of 18 from the line. This after a near flawless performance in a 73-70 win over Northern Arizona the night before.
“We missed a couple of big ones that could have sealed it earlier,” Beitzel said. “But we made them when we needed to.”
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.
The Bears have made constant stride since their 4-24 campaign under then coach Tad Boyle. They were 25-8 last season in Boyle’s final year before he bolted for the University of Colorado.
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. The team finished 14-0 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.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)