Southern Utah was one of five Big Sky Conference teams who finished with winning records during the non-conference portion of the schedule.
Montana State spent the non-conference, specifically in November, taking its lumps.
SUU entered Saturday afternoon’s Big Sky opener against the Bobcats in Cedar City, Utah with a 5-4 record that included an impressive 73-70 win at Seattle U.
MSU opened the season with a 101-71 home loss to Utah State, got more than doubled up at Assembly Hall in an 80-35 loss at Indiana, blew a lead in the last minute in an 81-77 loss at Colorado State, got ripped at UC Santa Barbara (88-69) and Arkansas (90-68) and looked uncompetitive in an 89-65 loss at Omaha.
In MSU’s first home game in 17 days and its only home game in a 55-day span, the Bobcats posted an 81-76 win over North Dakota and then won for a second straight game with the first Pac 12 upset by a Big Sky team this season with a 95-90 win against Washington State.
But Montana State limped into conference play with an uninspired effort in a 76-64 loss at Denver.
None of the non-conference mattered on Saturday. MSU fifth-year head coach Brian Fish has consistently said this season that he is optimistic about the potential of his team despite the early-season struggles and brutal competition. Saturday, Montana State did not turn the ball over during a nearly flawless first half to build a 46-30 lead and kept shooting the lights out in the second half on the way to a 92-62 win in front of 1,802.
“I really thought the key today was ball movement,” Fish said following the largest margin of victory in a league road win of his tenure at MSU. “I know we’re a better shooting team than we showed (in the non-conference season), and when I watched film over Christmas I noticed that at times the ball just doesn’t move. I thought they really did a good job of that today, and that resulted in us getting good shots.”
The Bobcats hit half of their 14 3-point attempts, including three by Big Sky 3-point career leader Tyler Hall, and shot 17-of-36 overall. Hall had 11 of his team-high 18 before halftime, Ladan Ricketts hit three 3-pointers and scored nine points while Devin Kirby scored eight points and grabbed seven rebounds in the first half.
Montana State continued whipping the ball and executing offensively, shooting 53.3 percent in the second half and drilling six more 3-pointers in doubling its score. Rickets hit five of his seven 3-point tries and finished with 15 points. Kirby, a 6-foot-11 sophomore who redshirted last season, scored 13 points and grabbed 12 rebounds.
MSU junior point guard Harald Frey scored all 11 of his points and hit three 3-pointers in the second half. He and senior Keljin Blevins finished with five assists each as the Bobcats dished out 20 dimes and committed just six turnovers.
True freshman Quentin Guliford hit two 3-pointers and scored a career-high 10 points as five Bobcats finished in double figures. MSU hit 33 of its 66 shots from the floor.
Southern Utah looked competitive in a 76-71 loss at UNLV on November 23 that followed a 3-0 start. All-conference forward Dwayne Morgan has not played since then because of unknown reasons. SUU has won just one Division I game, a 78-69 win overtime win over Pepperdine on December 15.
Saturday, the Thunderbirds never had a chance. MSU started the game on a 19-3 run and ended the game on a 7-0 spurt. The hosts shot 37 percent from the floor, missed 20 of 28 attempts from 3 and lost the battle of the boards 44-35, never leading for a single second. Jacob Calloway scored 14 of his team-high 18 points in the first half.
Ricketts and Hall each hit their first 3-point tries thanks to crisp ball movement as the Bobcats blitzed the Thunderbirds with a 10-0 run to open the game. Ricketts’ second 3-pointer in as many tries gave MSU a 13-3 lead, consecutive layups by backup point guard Russell Daniels pushed the lead to 19-3 and Blevins’ conversion in the paint eight minutes into the first half gave the visitors a 26-7 lead.
“The guys played really hard today, and they were really locked in on the scouting report,” Fish said. “We got off to a good start because we were doing things we need to do to be successful. We missed a shot (on MSU’s first possession), but DK (Devin Kirby) got an offensive board and kicked it out to Ladan (Ricketts), and he knocked down a three. The guys were locked into the scouting report and we were able to force a couple turnovers that turned into baskets as a result.”
A Guliford layup with 8:54 left in the first half gave Montana State it’s largest lead, 33-13, of the first 20 minutes.
An MSU lineup that included a collection of unproven young players helped ensure MSU’s largest lead was the final margin of victory.
Montana State is now 1-0 in league play, 4-7 overall. SUU falls to 5-5 overall.