Big Sky champs

The Vikings earned their first ever Big Sky regular season championship and the right to host the conference tournament by overcoming a six-point second half deficit to beat the Montana State Bobcats 88-82 in overtime.

PSU (19-7, 11-2 Big Sky) had never before won a Big Sky game in Bozeman, Mont., and needed every ounce of its fortitude to hold off the second-place Bobcats (13-13, 8-5).

PSU used an 11-0 run to take a 21-11 lead early in the first half behind a hot shooting start and an attacking defense that forced numerous MSU turnovers. The Vikings were able to shut down Bobcats leading scorer and rebounder Marvin Moss by deceptively changing defenses but had no answer for MSU junior JC transfers Al Beye and Ja’Ron Jefferson.

Beye and Jefferson combined for 25 first half points and led the Bobcats to a 40-37 halftime lead. The Bobcats consistently double-teamed Viking star Seamus Boxley, and the Viks struggled to take advantage of the resulting opportunities.

Beye and Jefferson kept the game close in the second half when Boxley figured out the defense. Boxley scored 14 second-half points after only putting up six in the first half and he and Blake Walker (21 points) staked the Viks to a seven-point lead with under three minutes remaining.

But the Vikings went cold as the 6000 fans came alive late in the half. By failing to score in the last two and a half minutes, the Viks let MSU send the game to overtime at 75-75.

With five minutes to prove they were without doubt the best team in the Big Sky, Jake Schroeder decided he had had enough. He drained two quick three-pointers to give the Viks an 81-75 lead they would not relinquish.

Despite missing nine of 14 free throws in overtime, PSU held on to the six-point margin and notched the biggest victory in the history of the basketball program. Beye finished with a career high 24 points and Jefferson added 17 for the losing Bobcats.

The victory ensures PSU will host the Big Sky conference tournament March 8-9 at the Memorial Coliseum. PSU will play the lowest seed remaining after the quarterfinal in a March 8 semifinal. The winners of the two semifinal games will play on ESPN2 for the Big Sky Championship, with the champ headed to the NCAA Championship.

The regular season championship completed a remarkable turnaround for a program that finished dead last in the conference two years ago and had never finished higher than third since joining the Big Sky in 1996.

By winning six games more than they did the year before, the Vikings were the most improved team in the league last year. Remarkably, they earned the honor again this year with eight more wins than last year and a game to go. With 19 wins, the Vikings have their most wins since the 1958-59 season when they won 20 games playing the likes of Oregon Tech and Eastern Oregon.

The Vikings wrap up the regular season Saturday night in Missoula against Montana and then return home to prepare for what is likely the biggest sporting event in the history of PSU athletics.

"I’m thrilled," Athletic Director Tom Burman said following the victory. " I really believe that anyone who is a stakeholder in PSU and anyone who has an interest in good basketball will show up to support us in the tournament."