SALT LAKE CITY — The Westminster Griffins ran roughshod over the defending NAIA national champion Rocky Mountain Battlin' Bears on Friday night, blowing open a close game late in the first half and battling through the second for an 80-68 victory.
The win puts the Griffins one step closer to their second-straight Frontier Conference tournament championship. The Griffins already earned the Frontier Conference regular-season title.
Although Westminster, which is ranked fourth overall nationally, went into the game having already beaten the Battlin' Bears twice this season, it can be extremely difficult to beat a team three times, particularly in playoffs.
The Griffins started slowly and there were 16 different lead changes before Westminster took the lead for good at 26-24 with 4:30 remaining in the first half. Westminster went on a 15-2 run to end the half and took an 11-point lead into the break.
Throughout the game, the Battlin' Bears occasionally threw on a full-court press and played the half-court game with a triangle-and-two, focusing on Westminster's leading scorer Blair Prowse, along with Weston Anderson and Michael Stockton, depending on which players were on the floor.
"We knew they were going to play the junk defense, the triangle-and-two, which made the game a bit lifeless in the beginning with their attack," Westminster head coach Tommy Connor said.
Although the focus on defense held Prowse, Anderson and Stockton to a combined three points at half, the other Griffins more than picked up the slack offensively. Ben Walker and Tanner Gregory combined to go 11-for-12 from the field and tallied 15 points and eight points, respectively, at the break for Westminster. Even more impressively, by halftime, Westminster had racked up 14 assists to Rocky Mountain's six.
"When they run a triangle-and-two, I know we'll get open shots," Walker said. "I scored a lot of points, but they pretty easy shots."
In the second half, it was more of the same, with the composed Griffins methodically breaking down the Battlin' Bears press and defense to get open shots. Westminster extended the lead to 21 points at the 11:10 mark, but three straight 3-pointers from EJ Ross and several aggressive drives from the Battlin' Bears cut the lead to nine before the Griffins pulled away again in the final minutes.
Walker led Westminster with 28 points, while Jeramie Hopson collected 15 points and distributed nine assists. Ross nailed seven 3s and totaled 23 points, and Anthony Allen put in 18 points and pulled down 10 rebounds for Rocky Mountain.
The Griffins will now face the Bulldogs from Montana Western at home for the Frontier Conference tournament championship at 7 p.m. on Monday. The two teams split, each winning at home, during the regular season.
"It's going to be tough," Connor said. "Montana Western is a very explosive offensive team. They're hard to guard. We're going to have to make sure we're ready to defend."