Montana State entered Saturday’s matinee with a collection of Bobcats in serious slumps as the team tried to snap out of a skid. MSU had lost 10 of 11 games with key cogs Zach Green and Sam Neumann mired in cold streaks.
Consider Northern Colorado the slump buster.
Less than 48 hours after a wildly entertaining, highly competitive battle in which MSU lost 90-85 to North Dakota, Montana State emerged from a tedious defensive grind against Northern Colorado. The Bears struggled with shot selection and any semblance of offensive flow throughout.
The Bobcats, while not crisp, controlled the action and earned a crucial 68-53 home win in front of 2,313 at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse on Saturday afternoon. The win was a relief that included the easement of a few individual Bobcats.
“Good to get off the schneid,” said Neumann, who made four field goals, four more than he had in five previous Big Sky Conference games.
The win snaps MSU’s three-game losing streak and sends the Bobcats out on the road after a Saturday win for the second straight time. Two weeks ago, MSU smothered an overmatched Idaho State squad in an 80-63 win in Bozeman on Saturday afternoon before getting swept on the road at Eastern Washington and Idaho the following week.
“The win is huge but we’ve been here before, just two weeks ago,” said Montana State freshman point guard Harald Frey after scoring a game-high 19 points to go with four assists and three steals in 35 minutes. “We have to take advantage of it this time. We have to go on the road and get one.”
Montana State held UNC to 34.6 percent shooting, including just 25 percent before halftime in building a 33-20 lead at intermission. The Bears did themselves no favors with their sporadic shot selection before halftime and poor free throw shooting (9-of-20) throughout.
“I thought we were really good defensively,” MSU third-year head coach Brian Fish said. “We were up in the place that makes shooters uncomfortable. We forced some turnovers that resulted in some easy baskets (23 points off turnovers for MSU.) We didn’t have to play against a set defense every time.”
During the victory, MSU’s second in six conference outings, Green had a nice spurt in which he scored eight straight points. The stretch included Green hitting back-to-back 3-pointers after hitting just one of his 14 tries from beyond the arc in conference play. The junior from Gilbert, Arizona finished with eight points, short of his best scoring effort against Big Sky opponents. But his 3-point shot looked much smoother than in previous weeks.
“That juices him a little bit,” Fish said. “We got 27 points before our 4s and 5s there that we’ve been missing. It certainly made things cleaner for us and was a big difference in the game.”
Neumann, a 6-foot-5 sophomore playing out of position as the starting center for the undersized Bobcats, had not made a field goal in conference play entering the game. Saturday, Neumann converted his first field goal attempt, made his first 3-pointer and had his best scoring effort of the league season.
“I don’t think it’s any secret here that we’ve been struggling inside and to see Zach and Sam play well is great,” Fish said.
“We had to find that with Tyler (Hall) playing with the flu and being gutted out there a little bit.”
Neumann’s 12 points were four more than he had in five conference games total and marked the first time he scored in double figures since his 15-point effort in a win over Arizona Christian on November 28.
Neumann came to MSU as a small forward with perimeter skills. He played spot minutes off the bench as a true freshman, hitting 10-of-19 shots from beyond the arc and shooting 60 percent overall in conference play. With Konner Frey’s eligibility waiver getting shut down by the NCAA and Benson Osayande’s delayed development, Neumann has been thrust into the starting front-court.
“I was frustrated more so that we were losing,” the St. Paul, Minnesota native said after converting 4-of-6 field goals and all three of his free throws. “I could go out there and score zero points or not even play and as long as we win, I’m happy. But it was frustrating and a tough stretch. Hopefully this can get me going.”
Northern Colorado 6-foot-9 center Ibrahim Sylla scored UNC’s first bucket of the game but exited the action three minutes in. He did not return and was seen going to the locker room with some sort of chest pain. Northern Colorado first-year head coach Jeff Linder elected to play a four-guard lineup for most of the rest of the game.
In response, Montana State switched almost all of Northern Colorado’s ball screen action on the perimeter in an effort to slow down hyperactive point guard Jordan Davis’ penetration. The sophomore entered the game averaging 21 points and a league-best 5.5 assists per game. He scored just four points and made just one field goal in the first half. Each time he kicked the ball, his Bears clanked 3-pointers, missing 13 of their 15 tries from deep in the first half.
“They are versatile team,” Frey said. “They are not that big but they often play four guards, a lot of movement. We had to downsize at times and I felt like we matched that really good, got out to the shooters.”
Northern Colorado finished 8-of-25 from beyond the arc. DJ Miles hit 5-of-10 from deep to finish with a team-high 19 points in 30 minutes off the bench. Davis finished with 14 points and five assists but he also turned the ball over seven times as UNC committed 21 miscues.
“We have to continue to progress,” Fish said. “I still don’t think we are playing on all cylinders…but the key we can take from this is continuing to guard. When you hold a team to 35 percent shooting, you are going to win a lot of games. We’ve guarded better as the season has gone along. Hopefully, we continue it.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.