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ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS: Hall marches to Big Sky scoring record

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BOZEMAN — Tyler Hall hovers around the 3-point line, calmly rubbing both hands on his shorts, making sure he is primed for his next chance to alter a game.

Hall is equally prepared to take over a game as fade into the background, letting those around him take control. It’s a striking example of the dichotomy that is the greatest shot maker in the history of the Big Sky Conference. Ferociously competitive yet undeniably shy. An assassin-like scorer more comfortable taking a supporting role. A rewriter of the record books with undeniable individual accolades finally tasting team success in his final season.

As Hall moves in Montana State’s wide open offense, his movements are flawlessly fluid, the way water avoids rocks in the nearby Southwest Montana rivers, picking up speed around each bend while displaying unparalleled pace in the calm straights of clear, quiet passages.

Nearly every time a down screen appears, Hall reads it effortlessly and accurately, breaking free regardless of which way his defender anticipates. When the ball finds him, an unmatched process unfolds. He squares up, catches, elevates and lets fly a jump shot equally unique as it is beautiful, the release one might expect from the son of two parents who have coached the art of the beautiful game for most of Hall’s life.

“He’s just magic, man,” MSU junior point guard Harald Frey said earlier this season. “It’s like watching TV. Sometimes, you get caught just staring at him, not moving at all because he so special.”

Montana State guard Tyler Hall (3)/by Brooks Nuanez

Often, Hall’s peerless 3-point shots appear like they might hit the ceiling in whatever arena he is performing, the net swishing with silent perfection and the opposing defender left in a state of bewilderment, even if only for the next possessions.

“You can literally close out on him so hard, you can feel your hand touch his face…and the shot still goes in,” Montana senior defensive ace Bobby Moorehead, perhaps Hall’s arch nemesis during his career, said before their final showdown in February.

“His ability to move on from a missed shot is unbelievable. He’s had shots where he’s bricked it off the side of the backboard or something and then he’ll hit three in a row. It’s like no other player in the league.”

The Rock Island, Illinois native has has made the net sing as many times as any player to ever suit up in the Western United States. He is inarguably the most prolific shot maker in the history of the Big Sky Conference. He is the league’s all-time leading scorer and 3-point shooter. He is one of the top scorers ever to play Division I basketball, ranking in the top 100 on any list you can find. He has made more 3-pointers in his unique career than Stephen Curry, the two-time MVP from the world champion Golden State Warriors widely considered the sweetest and most influential shooter in the history of the game who shot Davidson to the Elite Eight in 2009.

Yet Tyler Hall never expected this. He never asked for the attention or coveted the spotlight. And even though MSU head coach Brian Fish sold him on a dream of becoming a Bobcat great and a pillar of Fish’s , Hall still has a hard time believing his MSU career would reach these heights.

That in itself has been perhaps Hall’s biggest challenge, a shy kid from the suburbs dealing with stardom unseen by any Montana State basketball player before him.

“Really for me, my entire time at Montana State has been about coming out of my shell because I’ve never really been in a leadership role,” said Hall, who played on a Quad Cities (southeastern Illinois & Iowa) club team that featured Wisconsin standout Ethan Happ, former Creighton and current North Dakota point guard Marlon Stewart and UND slasher Cortez Seales.

Montana State senior guard Tyler Hall (3)/by Brooks Nuanez

“It was different for me, vocally, leading by example, having to take that responsibility. I’ve had to work on that throughout my time. I’m finally good at it. But it was a little struggle for me.”

As a true freshman, Hall announced his presence to the rest of the Big Sky, scoring 36 points in his first conference game at Southern Utah. He went on to average 20 points per game in conference play, winning Big Sky Freshman of the Year. Yet he spent that season defaulting to floor general Marcus Colbert, a steady leader who took the brunt of defenses and criticisms, allowing Hall to float and shoot.

His second season, Hall’s stock continued rising. With the precocious Frey stunning the league and giving MSU the first set of back-to-back top freshmen in league history, Hall put on a shooting display for the ages. He shot and hit 3-pointers at an unprecedented rate, ranking seventh in the country in scoring average and in the top 10 in 3-point field goal percentage, including No. 1 among players who shot more than 250 times from beyond the arc.

By the end of his sophomore season, Sports Illustrated sent a writer to Bozeman to profile his meteoric rise. Because he’s in the Big Sky, the comparisons to former Weber State star and current Portland Trail Blazers’ All-NBA point guard Damian Lillard served as the easy comparison. Because of Hall’s ability to fill it up from every level offensively, he also drew comparisons to former Lehigh star C.J. McCollum, also a Blazers standout.

“He’s a scary matchup who can score in so many ways, all three levels,” said Southern Utah head coach Todd Simon, who Hall has diced for more than 30 points three times and who’s SUU team Hall has averaged nearly 25 points per game against. “He gets in transition. Those transition 3s that are his trademark have been killer. He’s one of those guys who can get hot in a hurry. You just can’t let him see the rim or it’s over.”

Montana State senior guard Tyler Hall (3)/by Brooks Nuanez

By the end of his junior year, Hall was already Montana State’s all-time leader in made 3-pointers and 10th in Big Sky history in career points. Before conference play began during his senior year, Hall passed Bobcat legend Larry Chanay for MSU’s career scoring title, breaking a record that has stood since before the Big Sky existed.

And by mid-January of this year, Hall put the Big Sky’s all-time scoring mark in his rearview mirror. In typical if not frustrating fashion, Hall broke Bogdan Bliznyuk’s record in a narrow 85-81 loss on Bliznyuk’s former home court at Eastern Washington. The former EWU MVP held the all-time record for just 310 after breaking an iconic record set by Idaho’s Orlando Lightfoot 25 years ago.

“In track, you can be the best sprinter in the world and not need your teammates to do anything for you. Basketball, you have to have teammates to help you,” Fish said in January. “Somebody has to make the pass, somebody has to take it out, somebody has to get the rebound, somebody has to set the screen.

“When he earned that record, it’s truly a team award. For somebody to be the all-time leader in the Big Sky, that’s certainly Sam (Neumann) and Keljin (Blevins) and Harry (Frey) award as much as Tyler’s and he’s certainly felt that. When I talked about it to the team, he clapped for himself too because he was clapping for his teammates. It was pretty funny but he truly understands that it takes an entire team.”

On the surface, it may seem cliché or inauthentic. But those who spend time around Hall realize he truly is a shy, soft-spoken, polite kid devoid of the ego that plagues modern-day basketball. He will admit he looks at the statistical accomplishments and individual awards each off-season as a gage of what he needs to improve on. But not once in a string of interviews with the media easily reaching triple digits has Hall ever offered praise for himself.

Montana State guard Tyler Hall (3) drives baseline on on childhood friend, North Dakota forward Cortez Seales (15)/by Brooks Nuanez

“It’s so crazy that you kind of forget his records on a day-to-day basis because he’s such a low-key guy about it,” Frey said. “He never brags about it. He just loves being one of the guys, hanging around, cracking jokes. When you think that this is the guy who has scored the most points ever in this conference, that’s crazy.”

Leading up to Hall’s sophomore season, the Bobcats received a vote in the preseason Big Sky coaches’ poll from NAU head coach Jack Murphy. Ironically, led by lengthy forward Chris Bowling’s defense, Northern Arizona has done as good a job holding down Hall as any team in the league. But that extra attention led to Frey’s 30-point outburst in MSU’s 84-73 win over the Lumberjacks earlier this month.

“Hall is as tough of a cover as we’ve faced, not only in conference but in non-conference,” Murphy said. “If you give him an inch, he’ll make you pay.”

The authentic humility that has trademarked Hall’s career comes from a life of basketball guided by a pair of basketball junkies that have never let his head get big. Linda and Henry Hall bought Tyler a “Little Tikes” basketball hoop when he was just two years old. He took to the game right away.

“When I was younger, my dad did not let me shoot from super far away,” Hall said. “When you are younger, you are not strong enough to get the ball up there. That was the key to keeping the good form I have.”

As he continued to grow — he’s even added two inches from his listed height of 6-foot-3 as a senior at Rock Island High — he’s also added his trademark elevation to his picturesque jump shot. Hall has the ability to square his shoulders and jump straight up no matter what angle he receives the ball. He has the skill to create his own fade-away in the post, the balance to stop on a dime and fire a 25-foot catch-and-shoot in transition and the creativity come off a screen to hit a pull-up from any area of the court.

Montana State senior guard Tyler Hall (3) with parents/by Brooks Nuanez

“My dad coached me throughout youth sports and he instilled such solid fundamentals,” Hall said. “But he always said, ‘you play for the front of the jersey, not the back’ and I’ve always taken that with me.”

And it’s all been honed through systematic, simple and disciplined shooting workouts that have dominated Hall’s basketball life. Before and after every single practice, Hall works up another lather, a beauty in the repetition of his actions.

“I’ve been around a lot of pros,” said Frey, a native of Oslo, Norway who has played in the country’s top league since he was a teenager. “And Tyler is as much of a professional as I’ve seen.”

The 6-foot-5 sharpshooter has scored more points than any player in the history of the Big Sky, forever etching his namesake above Lillard and Larry Krystkowiak and Michael Ray Richardson. Yet Hall has always been more comfortable in the shadows compared to the limelight.

“He’s a very humble guy,” said MSU senior power forward Keljin Blevins, Lillard’s first cousin. “When you ask him, coming into college, he didn’t even expect to be nothing like what he is today. He doesn’t read the articles or think about what might be after this. He lives in the moment and whatever comes after comes after.”

In Montana State’s second-to-last game of Hall’s senior season at Sacramento State, a win earning the Bobcats their first bye in the conference tournament in a generation, Hall harnessed one of the most remarkable hot streaks of a career characterized by a bevy of them.

Montana State senior guard Tyler Hall (3)/by Brooks Nuanez

With the Hornet defense keying on Frey, the reigning Big Sky Player of the Week, Hall scored 10 points in 61 seconds and 14 points in less than two minutes during a shooting rampage that ultimately saw him hit eight 3-pointers and score 34 points.

But the effort came in a loss, a much too common occurrence in an individually outstanding career that has been highlighted simultaneously by a seemingly endless string of personal accolades and cumulative disappointments for the Bobcats. Hall has surpassed 30 points 15 times in his career, only five coming in MSU victories.

Hall’s effort in a 70-67 loss at Sacramento State helped him pass Curry on the NCAA’s all-time list for 3-pointers made in a Division I career. Since the NCAA adopted the 3-point line during the 1985-86 season, hall has scored more points than all but 47 men in the history of Division I basketball. He’s one half of basketball away from passing legends like Danny Manning and Christian Laettner.

At the Nest, Hall’s flurry gave the Bobcats a three-point lead with seven minutes to play. His teammates took the next eight shots and he missed his next three. Hall hit three free throws with 10 seconds left to boost his point total and buried an inconsequential 3-pointer as time expired to cut the final deficit in half even though the final result was no longer in doubt.

“Honestly, any record I break, I want to break it during a win,” Hall said on the eve of passing Bliznyuk in Cheney. “I’ve never read into the numbers. I am always focused on the wins.”

Montana State senior guard Tyler Hall (3)/by Brooks Nuanez

On one hand, Hall has been the most pivotal piece to Fish’s rebuilding efforts in Bozeman. The Bobcats have grown their attendance by leaps and bounds during Hall’s four years, consistently selling out the rivalry game against the Grizzlies and garnering more than 3,000 fans on most Saturday matinees.

On the other hand, Hall’s career has been marred by heartbreaking losses and three straight first-round exits in the conference tournament. Fish’s first season a year before Hall arrived on campus, the Bobcats finished 7-24. Hall’s freshman season, he and Colbert led MSU to nine league wins but MSU lost in a slugfest in the first round of the conference tournament to Sacramento State.

Hall’s epic sophomore year included going blow for blow with the leading scorer in the country. In a non-conference game in Bozeman, Hall scored a career-high 42 points, the second-most in MSU history and the 7th-highest total in Big Sky annals. But Marcus Keene scored 44 points and Central Michigan emerged with a 106-103 win.

Later that season, Hall caught lightning in a bottle the same game his team found its stride. During a stretch that saw MSU win 10 of 12 games, Hall etched the signature performance of his career. With the first sellout since 2005 on hand at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse, Hall quite literally could not miss.

Montana State senior guard Tyler Hall (3) in 2016 vs Montana forward Bobby Moorehead (24)/by Brooks Nuanez

“There’s a lot of great players  in this rivalry, especially recently and that might be the greatest game in Cat-Griz history,” Fish said.

That night memorable night at the Brick, Hall hit literally everything he put up. The only time Moorehead actually saw Hall hit a shot off the backboard, it was a banked in make from beyond the arc on a night Hall hit 11 of his 13 shots from the floor, including 6-of-8 from deep. His virtuoso 37-point performance lifted Montana State to a 78-69 victory, the lone win by Hall and Fish against Montana and the only Bobcat victory in the rivalry in the last 18 matchups.

“I felt like I was playing pretty good defense and he just hit ridiculous shots,” Moorehead said. “He’s one of the toughest guys in the league to guard. He’s a helluva offensive player.”

In the first round of the conference tournament, Hall hit seven 3-pointers and scored 33 points. But Randy Onwuasor’s super-human 43-point performance lifted Southern Utah to a 109-105 triple overtime win in the most unbelievable first-round game in league history.

With the outside noise of NBA prospects or potential transfers becoming deafening and the target of being voted preseason Big Sky MVP squarely on his back, Hall and the Bobcats struggled last season. MSU started 4-0 in league play for the first time in more than a decade only to lose 13 of 15 down the stretch. Salt in the open wound came when the Bobcats blew a 19-point second half lead in a two-point loss to North Dakota in the first round of the conference tournament, marking Hall’s third straight early exit.

Battling a sore ankle and tender achilles stemming from an injury suffered in an inconsequential early-season game against Montana Western, Hall’s scoring average dipped from 23.9 points per game (7th in the country) to 18.5 per game. His shooting percentages also swooned as the parade of pro scouts sitting court side at both home and away games ratcheted up the pressure. Yet after the season, Hall declared for the NBA Draft, electing to not hire an agent to keep his door open at MSU.

He worked out for a collection of NBA evaluators, earning private workouts with the Boston Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder with Fish acting as a liaison for Hall’s opportunities.

Montana State senior guard Tyler Hall (3)/by Brooks Nuanez

“Honestly, I didn’t think of the NBA was a reality until I got on my first flight to go work out for an NBA team and honestly, not even until I started working out did it even seem real,” Hall said. “It seemed surreal. You hear people talking but you don’t really think about it. When I got there to my first workout, that’s when I realized this was serious.

“Work ethic,” Hall continued when asked about what stood out about the top league in the world. “Being around professionals, they take everything seriously, every little thing. Work ethic is what separates good players from great players.

This week, Hall has one last chance to match team accomplishment with individual accolade. Montana State is experiencing as much team success as at any time during the Hall and Fish era. The Bobcats enter the Big Sky Tournament in Boise as the the sixth-seed. MSU will take on Idaho on Wednesday.

Only 33 men have ever scored 2,500 points in their Division I careers. Only eight players have made more 3-point shots than Hall. His career is singular in the scope of Montana State and the Big Sky Conference.

Hall will be the first to admit that “we have always been the team that has all the potential but never really lived up to it.” But he also says he loves this Bobcat squad and thinks this is the year his team could rewrite the narrative of his career and the Fish era.

Regardless of how MSU’s fortunes play out in Boise, Hall’s career has been unforgettable. And his personal experience — from arriving on campus as a shy kid who had a hard time navigating the world outside Brick Breeden Fieldhouse to evolving into one of the most prolific scorers in the West — the last four years has transformed Hall into something he never thought he could become.

“Here, I’ve learned leadership, how to be vocal, how to communicate, how to be more outgoing as a person,” Hall said. “When I first got here, I didn’t really talk at all to anyone. Now, engaging with other people. I appreciate this experience. It’s helped me a lot in many ways on and off the court. I can’t thank Coach Fish and Montana State enough. This has changed me.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved. 

Montana State senior guard Tyler Hall (3)/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State senior guard Tyler Hall (3)/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State senior guard Tyler Hall (3) with guard Harald Frey (5)/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State senior guard Tyler Hall (3)/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State senior guard Tyler Hall (3)/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State senior guard Tyler Hall (3)/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State senior guard Tyler Hall (3)/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State senior guard Tyler Hall (3)/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State senior guard Tyler Hall (3)/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State senior guard Tyler Hall (3)/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State senior guard Tyler Hall (3) with Brian Fish/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana senior forward Bobby Moorehead (24) defending Montana State senior guard Tyler Hall (3) in 2018/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State senior guard Tyler Hall (3)/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State senior guard Tyler Hall (3) with head coach Brian Fish/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State senior guard Tyler Hall (3)/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State senior guard Tyler Hall (3)/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State senior guard Tyler Hall (3) with Brian Fish/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State senior guard Tyler Hall (3)/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State senior guard Tyler Hall (3)/by Brooks Nuanez

 

About Colter Nuanez

Colter Nuanez is the co-founder and senior writer for Skyline Sports. After spending six years in the newspaper industry with stops at the Missoulian, the Ellensburg Daily Record and the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, the former Washington Newspaper Association Sportswriter of the Year and University of Montana Journalism School graduate ('09) has cultivated a deep passion for sports journalism during his 13-year career covering the Big Sky Conference. In August of 2014, Colter and brother Brooks merged their passions of writing and art to found Skyline Sports.

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