BOZEMAN, Montana — Tricia Binford had several teams that started 8-1 in Big Sky Conference play during the current decade, most of which included the league playing an 18-game league schedule.
Binford, Montana State’s ace veteran head women’s basketball coach, has had rosters flush with talent. The Bobcats have been contenders in the Big Sky for more than 10 years.
A few of those fast starts resulted in disappointing finishes, although MSU always remained competitive and in the mix. Two runs resulted in Big Sky regular-season championships and one culminated in the program’s first trip to the Big Dance
It’s still up for debate if Binford’s current team has elite individual talent to rival players like fan favorite guards Erica Perry and Katie Bussy or Big Sky MVP post players like Jasmine Hommes and Peyton Ferris.
But Binford’s latest iteration has perhaps the best combination of veteran players — MSU has five seniors — along with talented freshmen and depth bolstered by a rotation that can go 10 and even 11 deep.
On Saturday afternoon at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse, all those advantages were on display despite the visitors hailing from Pocatello. The perennially physical Bengals once again brought the muscle but Binford’s squad handled the style with poise and consistency.
Montana State’s lead never swelled above 12 points but the Bobcats also never trailed on the way to a 67-59 victory in front of 2,357 fans, a season-high during Big Sky play.
“One of our greatest strengths is we have the depth and the post play to be physical for 40 minutes,” Binford said. “We take a lot of pride of going through the paint. We have to have post touches, we have to have paint touches.
“We just have to continue to take the next step. When we continue to be hungry individually and every day, we are getting better individually, the sort of carry over for your team in general is big. Communication is our next step. Our effort has been fantastic. Our next step is to eliminate the pieces where we play hero ball.”
The victory moves Montana State to 8-1 in conference play, 12-6 overall. MSU is 7-2 at home after dropping Idaho State to 4-5 in league play, 8-10 overall. On Thursday, ISU posted a convincing 67-53 win over Montana, just the second win in 45 games all-time at Dahlberg Arena.
“When you talk about basketball screen action, I think Idaho State does all of it,” Binford said. “You are going to get hit by a back screen, a cross screen, a staggered screen, a flare screen and our ability ot communicate and try to be in plays, we had a lot of breakdowns. But I think one of our strengths for us is that we have the mantra make a wrong into a right.
“So we scramble out of it and a lot of times, that scramble creates a great opportunity for us. You aren’t always going to have a perfect defensive possession. But we are at the point where we are going to play through that possession regardless.”
MSU senior Fallyn Freije led Montana State’s balanced scoring attack against ISU’s customarily physical defense. The preseason Big Sky Player of the Year converted six of her 11 attempts from the floor on the way to a team-high 15 points. She also snared a team-high eight rebounds, helping MSU to a 38-31 advantage on the glass.
“I’ve been in this conference for four years now,” said Freije, who spent her first three seasons at North Dakota and sat out last year at MSU. “Every time we have played Idaho State, they are always the most physical team one through five. Their guards will switch on you but they will bang you the whole time.
“Being a senior, knowing what to expected, we prepared the underclassmen to get hammered from the beginning.”
MSU senior combo guard Oliana Squires, who surpassed, 1,000 points in her career earlier this season, came off the bench for the second game in a row Saturday. After playing just nine minutes in a win over Weber State on Thursday because of an injury in her foot, Squires hit several big shots on the way to 13 points.
“This start feels pretty good but obviously, we are never satisfied,” Squires said. “We can only get better from here if we continue wanting to be better.
“I think everyone is doing a great job and everyone plays their role really well, I’m just working my way back and I’m so happy my team is getting wins.”
Squires hit a running 20-footer at the third-quarter buzzer to keep MSU up 41-34. That was part of a four-point spurt in the final 51 seconds of the frame. She found the 3-point line and stroked a 3-pointer less than three minutes into the fourth quarter to put the Bobcats up 50-40.
“For part of this game, it was the Oli show,” Binford said. “She’s really unique, she’s really special. You get her in a ball screen action and she does her thing. I thought that was really critical for us to get into some two-man game action with the post play and her. And she also brings steadiness.”
Montana State’s depth and unselfishness is perhaps best displayed by the fact that Squires and senior Blaire Braxton came off the bench on Saturday. Braxton scored eight points, giving her 20 for the weekend, and grabbed four rebounds.
Senior Madeline Smith scored nine points and dished out three assists. Senior Martha Kuderer scored eight points and grabbed four rebounds.
On the opposite side of the coin, freshman point guard Darian White continued showing her elite potential by scoring 12 points to go with five rebounds, dictating the tempo from start to finish in 31 confident minutes.
“Throughout the summer, I really thought our offense was just going to be unreal and it is,” Freije said. “We have very even scoring and any girl could score 20 if we wanted to get them the ball every time down the floor. That’s so special to play with and I feel so blessed to be on a team where every girl can score eight to 12 points.
“Those are the hardest teams to beat.”
An Achilles heel of Binford’s teams have historically been if the Bobcats don’t shoot well from outside the lane and beyond the arc, MSU doesn’t have a lot of answers.
Saturday, only Freije (1-of-4) and Squires (1-of-5) hit 3-pointers as MSU finished 2-of-14 from beyond the arc. But the Bobcats figured out a way to lock in, holding ISU to 43 percent shooting and winning the battle on the glass. MSU also made 13-of-17 free throws, outscoring the Bengals by eight points in the process.
“We stayed mentally tough,” Squires said. “That was the biggest thing. We worked through fouls, whatever, and came in prepared.
“The biggest thing we knew coming into the game is that they are tough. We had to stay mentally tough through contact and play like we usually do.”
The Bobcats are in first place in the Big Sky with a two-game lead over Idaho in the win column. MSU finishes the first half of the 20-game league schedule with a matchup at rival Montana in Missoula.