OGDEN, Utah -- After barely shooting 50 percent from the foul line in the second half, Portland State secured a bid to the NCAA tournament with the surest shot possible -- Julius Thomas, alone under the basket for a dunk.
Thomas broke free for a slam off a pass from Dominic Waters with 3.5 seconds left and Portland State hung on to beat Montana State 79-77 Wednesday night in the Big Sky Conference tournament championship.
The Vikings repeated as conference champions and clinched their second consecutive NCAA tournament berth, despite allowing the Bobcats to rally from 10 points down and tie it at 77 with 11 seconds left on a 3-pointer by Branden Johnson.
The tie didn't last long.
Waters drove the length of the floor and dropped a pass to Thomas.
"Dom made a great play. He got all the way down to the rack and he dropped it off to me," said Thomas, who finished with 17 points. "I just wanted to make sure I finished so I just went up and finished as hard as I could."
The Vikings made their NCAA tournament debut a year ago and drew Kansas, the eventual national champion, in the first round. Portland State can't do much worse on the draw this time and will have some experience heading into the national tournament.
"The first time was a great experience. This time we have some goals of going further and make some history," said Jeremiah Dominguez, who led Portland State with 22 points, five assists and had three steals.
Divaldo Mbunga had 20 points and 10 rebounds to lead the Bobcats (14-17), who were the No. 6 seed in a six-team tournament. The Bobcats made it to the championship game for the first time since 1998 by beating top-seeded Weber State in the semifinals Tuesday on the Wildcats' home court.
Montana State, which closed the regular season with five straight losses, nearly pulled off a sweep through the conference tournament.
"They did everything they had to do to have a chance at the end. And that's all you can ask of them," Montana State coach Brad Huse said. "I just really feel bad they didn't get to reach the dream."
Montana State outrebounded Portland State 34-25 and took advantage of the Vikings' struggles at the foul line to have a chance at the end after stalling early in the second half. The Vikings finished 6-for-11 from the foul line in the second half and were only 12-for-19 in the game.
Thomas went 1-for-2 with 1:25 left to give the Vikings a 77-74 lead and leaving Montana State in position to tie it on Johnson's 3-pointer.
Johnson scored 17 and Erik Rush finished with 16 points for Montana States, but the Bobcats' reserves were outscored 24-2 by the Vikings' bench.
Montana State opened the second half 4-for-5 from the floor took a 50-48 lead when Johnson tipped in a rebound off a missed free throw.
But Dominguez responded by driving through traffic and making a layup to start a 13-1 run. Murray hit a 3-pointer and Dominguez took a steal in for a reverse layup that put the Vikings ahead 61-51.
The Bobcats got right back in it with six straight points and had a chance at the end as Portland State continued to miss free throws. The Vikings missed one shot every time they went to the line -- the only time they got two points was when Dominguez went 2-for-3.
"We worked really hard and we never thought we'd be in this position, but we're fortunate to just get this far," said Will Bynum, who scored 10 for Montana State. "We're happy to be here, but we wanted to win."