Big Sky Conference

Ball movement sparks Bobcats past Sac State


BOZEMAN — Tyler Hall set the pace with both his scoring and his abilities as a point guard, Zach Green final found a groove and the Bobcats might’ve shaken out of a funk spurred on by sickness and cold shooting.

Hall, the Big Sky Conference preseason MVP, looked like it for the second straight game, scoring 28 points and running MSU’s offense for about half of his 35 minutes of action. Green, a three-year starter who has spent most of his senior year coming off the bench, found a groove with his mid-range jump shot, giving the Bobcats an added boost in scoring.

Montana State shot 51 percent overall to shake its recent shooting struggles and finally looked healthy after a full three weeks battling the influenza infecting the Northwest on the way to a much-needed 92-76 victory in front of 2,703 at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse on Thursday night.

Montana State forward Zach Green (0) scored a season high 16 points vs. Sac State/by Brooks Nuanez

“Looking at what has affected us in our losses is when we aren’t playing well, we kind of give up and start fighting each other but we came together as a group, got the basket, kept staying aggressive and that led to the win,” Green said.

The win moves Montana State to 6-6 in league play and 13-12 overall. MSU began league play 4-0 only to lose four straight. MSU shoot that skid by barely hanging on for a 69-66 win over Southern Utah two nights after giving Northern Arizona its first victory.

The struggle continued as MSU shot under 40 percent for the fifth time in six games in an 86-63 loss at Northern Colorado despite 27 points from Hall, an NBA prospect who has battled the flu bug as bad as anybody since the third week of January.

Hall’s renewed health will be key for a Bobcat team trying to fight its way out of the middle of the Big Sky standings and into one of the top four spots that receive a first-round bye at the Big Sky Tournament in Reno 25 days away.

“When it’s 10 o’clock in the morning and I don’t see our trainer coming in telling me another one of my guys have the flu, I don’t even drink and I may have one,” Fish said. “At 10 o’clock, I start looking out of the side of my eye thinking who the hell is sitting today. Tyler hasn’t been on the report for awhile so he’s getting better.”

On Thursday against a struggling Hornets squad — Sac State has lost five of six after an 87-68 win over MSU in Sacramento 26 days ago — Hall and the ‘Cats hit their stride early. Montana State hit 15-of-26 shots before halftime as Hall scored 17 points on seven shots. Similarly sick point guard Harald Frey added 10 points in the first 20 minutes as the Bobcats took a 45-29 halftime lead capped by a momentous fast break dunk off a steal by guard Devonte Klines.

Montana State guard Tyler Hall (3) looks for space in the lane vs. a collapsing Sac State defense/by Brooks Nuanez

Slow starts to second stanzas have killed the Bobcats during the recent cold streak. Sac hit its first six shots of the second half to cut the MSU lead to 55-51 with 14 minutes left. Sac State star senior Justin Strings hit a jump shot with 9:25 let to cut the MSU lead to 66-62.

Montana State responded with a 17-2 run that pushed the advantage to 83-64 on a pair of free throws by Green, who finished with 16 points, double his previous season high entering the game. A jumper by senior Joe Mvuezolo with 3:12 left gave MSU its biggest lead, 90-67, and the hosts cruised from there.

“Unfortunately, it’s been a theme with us to start slow in the second half and that’s something we have to address but usually when something like that happens, on this losing streak, we’ve been crumbling,” MSU junior forward Sam Neumann said. “Tonight, we came together and were able to fight it off.”

Frey notched five of MSU’s 15 assists and the Bobcats put five players in double-figure scoring, led by Hall and Green. Junior Devonte Klines added 12, Frey finished with 10 despite not scoring after halftime and junior Keljin Blevins scored 10 points to go with eight rebounds.

Montana State forward Joe Muvezolo (1) drives baseline vs. Sac State defenders/by Brooks Nuanez

“When they hit eight 3s that second half, the lead gets squeezed a little bit but I like what we did when we got back on offense: we moved the ball,” Fish said. “We had 15 assists tonight. The passes we made led to the 51 percent shooting. The ball had juice, it had life and it resulted in us shooting a good percentage.”

MSU held Sac State to 38.7 percent shooting in the first half by using a 2-3 zone defense that helped limit Strings. The 6-foot-7 All-Big Sky guard scored 31 on MSU in January. He had seven points while mostly facing a double team in the first half  before scoring 14 points against Montana State’s man-to-man defense after halftime.

“We wanted to hold him a little bit and they missed some open shots, which made it a little better than it was,” Fish said of the zone. “We wanted to disrupt them a little bit. Coach Katz is a fantastic coach so he made some adjustments. We knew they would. But it’s a conference game. People are going to make runs at you. You have to settle in.”

Sac State shot 48.5 percent after halftime, including hitting eight 3-pointers But MSU hit 29-of-31 free throws, including 8-of-8 from Hall and 6-of-6 from Blevins to keep the Hornets at arm’s length. MSU also held a 38-31 advantage on the glass after losing the battle of the boards 35-25 at Sac.

Montana State guard Harald Frey (5)/by Brooks Nuanez

“They whooped us by 10 on the boards at their place and we got that back around,” Fish said. “We had a lot of guys, if you look at our rebounding, it’s a shotgun approach. Everyone that went in there and played got a rebound. That made a difference.”

Green has been the forgotten man after averaging 8.3 points per game as a sophomore and 9.7 points per game last season. He entered his senior season with 683 career points but entered Thursday with just 109 this campaign. He has scored more than seven points just seven times this season with a season-high of eight points three times and 10 points just one, in last week’s 75-74 loss at North Dakota. On Thursday, he hit six of his eight field goal attempts and all eight of his free throws.

“I just tried to stay aggressive and my team helped me a lot,” Green said. “I just try to do it with the team.

“They leave the elbows pretty open in their zone and that’s something we talked about coming into the game.”

Montana State head coach Brian Fish coaching guard Devonte Klines (10)/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State looks to salvage a second straight season split with Portland State on Saturday afternoon in Bozeman. The Vikings scored a season-low 60 points in a 20-point loss at first-place Montana on Thursday. PSU is 4-7 in Big Sky play, one of the wins a 93-74 win over MSU that doubled as the stop where the Bobcats were exposed to the flu bug that has ripped through many teams in the Big Sky.

“It’s middle February, guys are tired, guys are gassed but you’ve got to keep grinding,” Fish said. “I loved our juice and for a February 8 game, our excitement and our juice was really good.”

Brooks Nuanez reported this story. Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.

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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