5 Biggest NCAA Tournament Upsets in Big Sky Conference MBB History - Walk-On Apparel

5 Biggest NCAA Tournament Upsets in Big Sky Conference MBB History

March is the time for college basketball magic. Nothing captures the public’s attention quite like a Cinderella run to the Sweet 16 (or even a little further). America loves a gritty team that punches above its weight and takes down Goliath.

The Big Sky Conference has seen its share of NCAA tournament upsets on the men’s side, some of them as memorable as they were stunning. We’ve compiled the definitive top five list from the annals of the conference’s long hoops history.


  1. Montana vs. Nevada (Final Score: 87-79), 2006

When the clock hit zeros in the first round of the 2005 NCAA tournament, Montana found themselves on the wrong end of a tough outing against #1 seed Washington. The Griz were outgunned early and never recovered from the already tall task of a #16 seed beating a #1 seed. But, they didn’t let that phase them.

When they returned to Missoula for the start of the 2005-2006 season, they wanted another shot at March glory. After cruising through their schedule both in and out of conference, they racked up an impressive 24-6 record, a Big Sky regular season title, and a Big Sky tournament title.

Their strong follow-up performance to the previous season garnered them a #12 seed in the 2006 NCAA Tournament and a chance to face #5 seed Nevada. The Wolfpack were a somewhat familiar foe, having been members of the Big Sky in recent memory. They left the Big Sky in 1992 to join the Big West Conference, then on to the WAC. Nevada was coming off an impressive season of their own, boasting a 27-6 record and two-time WAC Player of the Year, Nick Fazekas. The Pack were feeling confident, riding a 14-game win streak that stretched back to the regular season and through their own conference tournament.

Enter the Montana Grizzlies. The Griz never trailed from the tip, finishing the first half up 40-33. Many felt size would be a determining factor in the contest. Nevada brought two 7-footers and Fazekas at 6-11 to play. Montana’s tallest player stood at just 6-8. However, hustle on the boards and hot shooting mitigated the Wolfpack’s 36-32 rebounding advantage. In the dying minutes of the game, free throw shooting sealed it for the Griz, winning their first NCAA tournament game in the modern era (1985- ) and their second in school history with a score of 87-79. The press might have called them “Little Montana”, but the Wolfpack were forced to refer to them with a different moniker that day: Daddy.


  1. Weber State vs. Michigan State (Final Score: 79-72), 1995

It had been a long twelve years for the Weber State Wildcats between NCAA tournament appearances, but in 1995, they returned with their dancing shoes, ready to face Jud Heathcote’s Michigan State Spartans. Heathcote was no stranger to the Wildcat’s ways, having coached at Wildcat hoops rival Montana from 1971 to 1976. After Weber State locked up a handy win in the Big Sky tournament final against the aforementioned Grizzlies, they headed to the Florida panhandle to face the green MSU in Tallahassee.

The senior guard, consensus All-American, and Big 10 Player of the Year Shawn Respert led the Spartans to a runner-up finish in the Big 10 tournament that season and represented a tall order for the Wildcats on defense. However, Weber State had a weapon of their own in First Team All-Big Sky and conference Player of the Year senior guard Ruben Nembhard.

After a rocky start, a Nembhard and-one got Weber State’s offensive juices flowing, where they hung around, in spite of the Spartans hot shooting (7 of 13) from behind the arc. At the break, the Wildcats trailed 46-38 and felt confident that if Sparty cooled off from three-point land, they could grab their first lead of the game.

In the second half, the Wildcats ratcheted things up to go on runs of 12-0 and 10-2, flipping the game to take a 63-53 lead. The Weber State defense locked MSU down, causing turnovers and creating fast break opportunities for easy baskets. Then, Sparty battled back to cut the Wildcat lead to just two points with a little over two minutes in the game. Through two tense minutes of game play, Weber State held on to claim the 79-72 win and the Big Sky’s first NCAA tournament win since the format expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

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  1. Idaho vs. Iowa (Final Score: 69-67), 1982

On a crisp March day in 1982 just across the border in Pullman, Washington, the Idaho Vandals notched their seminal (and only) NCAA tournament victory. The dub was over the Iowa Hawkeyes in a battle of black and gold that cannot be left off the list.

Many jokes were made in the press about whether Moscow was in Iowa or Idaho leading up to the tilt at Friel Court, home to Idaho’s neighbor and rival, Washington State. The Hawkeyes were heavily favored over the Vandals, who had suffered a crushing one-point loss in overtime the previous year in the first round against Pittsburgh. The OT loss to Pitt in their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance still stinging in their minds, the Vandals came ready for redemption.

After a grinding first half, the Tribe from the North found themselves with a comfortable lead of 33-23 at halftime. But, the Hawkeyes came storming back in the second half. After going down 40-29, Iowa got active and tied things up at 57 to end regulation, logging 34 points and feasting on Vandal turnovers. It was Idaho’s first overtime face-off all season.

Feelings of déjà vu started creeping in for Idaho as they went to another tournament overtime game. However, this time things would end differently. As the two traded baskets, Vandals junior guard Brian Kellerman got his own shot at redemption. The previous year, Kellerman passed on a last-second shot to beat Pitt in regulation and avoid overtime. This time, Kellerman was ready to shoot. With just 3 seconds on the clock, Idaho head coach Don Monson drew up a play tailor-made for Kellerman to get that final basket. After a bounce straight up off the rim that had the Vandal-heavy crowd holding their collective breath, the shot fell and Idaho emerged victorious with a final score of 69-67. Though Kellerman wasn’t the leading scorer for the Vandals that day (that honor was held by junior forward Phil Hopson who led all scorers with 21 points), Kellerman got his second chance and delivered.

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  1. Weber State vs. North Carolina (Final Score: 76-74), 1999

The 90’s run of Dub State wasn’t complete after their 1995 upset over Michigan State. Just a few years later, they found themselves in a similar situation, as a #13 seed facing one of the bluebloods of college basketball: #3 seed North Carolina.

Like the Montana game in 2006, a lot was said about size leading up to the matchup in Seattle on March 11th. North Carolina could potentially put three seven-footers on the court at the same time, making things difficult for the Wildcats to score at the rim or rebound. On the flip side, Weber State brought speed that the Tar Heels could have trouble dealing with, potentially neutralizing their size with quickness.

In what would be Weber State head coach Ron Abegglen’s final season at the helm for the Wildcats, they wanted to show that they weren’t intimidated. That they could play with some of the best in the country.

A back-and-forth first half ended with the Wildcats up 35-33 with 20-minutes to play. The Weber State front court, led by Senior center Andy Jensen, did their best to limit the impact of the Tar Heels’ oft-mentioned size. North Carolina’s sophomore center Brendan Heywood struggled to make his height advantage count and chipped in no rebounds, 0-3 shooting from the field, an assist, and went 1-2 from the free throw line in 24 frustrating minutes. The Tar Heels ultimately won the rebounding battle with a mark of 37-26, feasting on the offensive boards with 13.

However, the cheat code for the Wildcats was Big Sky Player of the Year Harold “The Show” Arceneaux. Arceneaux was a difficult matchup for North Carolina, knocking down threes (he went 5-7 from behind the arc, a career high) and getting out in transition. The Wildcats kept pace through Arceneaux’s leadership and Big Sky Tournament MVP Eddie Gill’s steady hand in the backcourt. With three minutes remaining, Weber State enjoyed a comfortable 10-point lead before the Tar Heels made their rally, closing the gap to just two points.

With drama high and foul shooting galore, the Wildcats clung to a 76-73 lead with five seconds remaining. A Weber State inbound pass was stolen by UNC’s Ed Cota and immediately put back up for a quick layup, trimming the lead to one with 3 seconds left. After another foul sent Wildcat guard Noel Jackson to the line to make 1-2, Arceneaux put the game on ice by returning the favor from a few seconds ago, stealing the Tar Heel inbound pass and ending North Carolina’s 18-year run of advancing past the first round of the tournament. Arceneaux led all scorers with 36 points and etched his name in the annals of NCAA Tournament history forever.


  1. Idaho State vs. UCLA (Final Score: 76-75), 1977

As we researched which upset should take the top spot in our rankings, Idaho State’s 1977 shocker over #2 UCLA was the obvious choice. The Bruins had built a dynasty, claiming 10 national titles from 1962 to 1975, including 7 straight titles from 1967 to 1973. To say that this was David versus Goliath would almost be an understatement.

The 0-3 start was a little rocky for the Stripes as the season kicked off, but Idaho State righted the ship to go on a run of 12 consecutive wins, find themselves with a 15-3 record. Another stripe (you see what we did there?) of 8 straight victories was enough to seal the Big Sky crown over rival Weber State and a ticket to the Big Dance.

In the first round (then just 32 teams), the Bengals would face Long Beach State in the friendly confines of Holt Arena. Fan support was through the roof as Idaho State claimed victory over the then-49ers (Long Beach State changed their nickname to “Beach” in 2019). Before their own game tipped off, Idaho State got a look at the dynasty that was the UCLA Bruins playing right before them against Louisville. They drew confidence from what they saw. They could play with the big boys.

In the week following their win over Long Beach State, Stripes head coach Jim Killingsworth (affectionately called “Killer” by his players) sat his squad down to watch film and plan just how to break down UCLA’s game. In an interview with Idaho State Athletics back in 2017, Stan Klos (a senior Center on the 1977 Bengals squad) noted that scouting was a particular strength of Killingsworth’s. Once game time arrived at the Marriott Center down in Provo, Utah, the Stripes knew all of UCLA’s plays, movements, and schemes. They were ready.

The matchup ended up being the opposite of many of the others we’ve already mentioned above. This time, it was Idaho State that would bring the size, while the heavily-favored Bruins boasted lightning speed and NCAA Player of the Year (now called the Wooden Award after UCLA’s legendary head coach) Marques Johnson. Johnson played his game in the first half, scoring 19 points and looking very much the MVP he was. After the first 20 minutes of play, Idaho State found themselves down 38-32. Killingsworth had noticed in his film study that both Louisville and Washington State had made UCLA struggle by going with a zone defense. He tried it himself and the second half completely changed. After being unstoppable in the first half, Johnson scored just two points for the remainder of the contest.

Bengals center Steve Hayes feasted on UCLA’s weak interior defense, leading all scorers with 27 points and chipping in 12 rebounds. Gone were the days of the Bruins having names like Lew Alcindor or Bill Walton at center. Now, UCLA cycled between three different options at the five position to try to get the job done.

With just over two minutes remaining, Idaho State had built the lead up to 71-63. Then, UCLA’s full-court press allowed the Bruins to whittle it down to a 72-69 Bengals advantage with 51 seconds remaining. While Stripes fans may have been sweating in the stands, the players were cool as cucumbers at the free throw line, making 18 of 21 attempts in the second half. Freshman guard Ernie Wheeler, himself a native of southern California, subbed in with just 37 seconds to put the final two free throws in and lock up the 76-75 victory for the Bengals. Wheeler’s contribution would be his only points of the night and go on to become the stuff of legends in Pocatello.

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