Three years ago, Westminster basketball coach Tommy Connor couldn't have been further away from the Frontier Conference Championship.
He had a literally empty gym, a blank roster and not a win to his name.
But following Thursday's first round 91-77 pounding of the University of Great Falls, Connor and the Griffins are only two steps away from a conference championship and an automatic berth in the NAIA tournament. With the win, Westminster advances to a quarterfinal matchup with Lewis-Clark State College.
And while Connor won't let his team overlook Lewis-Clark, he can't help but think of the irony — that his team, the regular season champion, is the favorite despite not even existing until last season.
"Three years ago, I was sitting up on the balcony, looking over the gym and I didn't even have a player," Connor said. "And now, we're hosting the tournament. It's a tremendous credit to our guys on this team."
But Connor is quick to remind anyone — especially his team — that nobody in this tournament can be overlooked, not even Great Falls.
"We take one game at a time," he said, "and we spent all week on (Great Falls). There's not a second game if you don't win the first one."
To prove they had listened to their coach, the Griffins came out with the intensity of a championship game. For their efforts, the Griffins jumped to an 11-0 lead and never looked back.
Guard Mitch Montgomery, who averages 21.5 points per game, led Westminster with 30 points despite spending much of the second half resting on the bench. Matt Sparrow added 16 even though he played most of the game in foul trouble.
The Griffins take on Lewis-Clark today at 8 p.m. at Payne Gymnasium on the Westminster campus. It's a game Connor expects to be tough.
"We're going to have a very difficult game versus Lewis-Clark," he said. "We need to come out with great energy." If they do, the Griffins will probably be one step closer to a goal that didn't even exist three years ago.
Western Montana College 81, Montana Tech 72: Powered by Josh Frunz's 21 points and 4 assists, the Bulldogs came from behind to advance to the quarterfinals. Down 47-38 at halftime, Western Montana staged a comeback due to defensive pressure, holding Montana Tech to 33 percent shooting in the second half.
Carroll College 84, Rocky Mountain College 66: The Fighting Saints used a balanced offensive attack — led by J.D. Solomon's 22 points — to roll past the Battlin' Bears. Second-seed Carroll takes on third-seed Western Montana today at 6 p.m.
Lewis-Clark 83, Montana State University-Northern 73: The Warriors, with their trifecta of Ryan Bender, Jared Price and Jeremy Jeppesen, used a big second half to defeat the Lights. The trio combined for 73 of the Warriors' 83 points.