BOZEMAN — On the heels of an offensive outburst against Idaho State, Montana State suffered a heartbreaker to its fiercest rival. Following last weekend’s loss to Big Sky Conference-leading Montana, the Bobcats have now posted a pair of what could be tone-setting wins.
Less than 48 hours after last Saturday’s 83-78 loss to UM in Bozeman, the Bobcats rebounded with a gritty 69-66 victory against formerly first-place Northern Colorado. MSU closed that win on a 9-0 run.
On Thursday back at Brick Breedin Fieldhouse, Montana State finished strong again. The Bobcats rallied from a 10-point second half deficit and closed what was a tie game with 4:48 to play on a 12-2 run to earn a hard-fought 74-66 victory in front of 2,267 on Thursday night in Bozeman.
“We just gotta get stops,” MSU sophomore center Devin Kirby said. “As long as we do that, everything else will fall into place and that’s been our name emphasis the past two games. We just wanted to rely on our defense.”
Montana State has now won three of its last four after enduring a three-game losing streak that included a 73-70 home loss to Northern Colorado and an 85-81 loss at Eastern Washington. A 104-point explosion in a 20-point win over Idaho State spurred MSU’s recent strong stretch.
The Bobcats are not 7-5 in Big Sky Conference play, 10-12 overall. Eastern Washington came to Bozeman winners of five of its last six. EWU posted an 82-64 win against Northern Arizona behind a career-high 41 points from Jacob Davison that moved Eastern to 6-5 in league, in a fourth-place tie with the ‘Cats.
Thursday in Bozeman, Davison again set the pace on both ends, scoring 24 points and face guarding MSU star senior Tyler Hall. Davison limited the Big Sky Conferene’s all-time leading scorer to five points, including just two in the second half and none in the game’s final 19 minutes.
But MSU junior Harald Frey continued to make his case as a first-team all-conference performer. The former Big Sky Freshman of the Year hit a game-tying 3-pointer with 4:48 left to knot the game at 62. He avoided a trap and heaved a 28-footer that found pay dirt to give MSU a 67-66 lead with 2:08 remaining. The Eagles would not score again but Frey would, drilling another jump shot and hitting 3-of-4 at the free throw line in the game’s final 50 seconds to seal MSU’s 10th overall win.
“We were in the same position on Monday and that’s what pulled us through was the defense,” Frey said. “We shut them out to end the game. We always think we can score with anyone. That’s the confidence we have in ourselves on the offensive end. For us, it comes down to the defensive end. I think that was a huge key.”
The southpaw from Norway scored 14 of his team-high 22 points in the second half. He also secured MSU’s final defensive rebound of the game, his eighth. He snared three of his five steals in the game’s final 1:44. And for the second time in three games, he dished out eight assists, four in each half.
“He was fantastic, aggressive,” Montana State head coach Brian Fish said. “His head was in it the whole time, trying to lead us and fight it. He was fantastic tonight.”
Frey played a key factor in helping MSU end the game on a 24-6 run over the final 10 minutes.
“We feel like we have a special group of guys and we have so much fun playing together, it feels like a family,” Frey said. “We think we are better than the 5-5 record we had coming out of the Montana loss. At some point, we have to turn it around and the next game is the next opportunity.
“I think we are turning in the right direction at the right time.
Half of Frey’s assists went to Kirby, who finished a quartet of back-side lobs at the rim his way to a career-high 19 points. The 6-foot-11 sophomore finished 8-of-11 from the floor and chipped in six rebounds as the Bobcats won the battle of the boards 37-35.
“With the way they defended the ball screens, DK took advantage of it and most of the time, his chin was going at the rim,” Fish said. “I have all the respect in the world for (Mason) Peatling and Hunt, how strong they are and how strong they play. That’s a major, major two-some you have to go through to score. I thought they got the better of him at their place and this time, Devin represented him really well.”
“Playing with Harry, I just have to find the pockets of space and find Harry’s eyes,” Kirby added.
Frey’s assist total was part of an 18-dime evening for the hosts, although Montana State missed 10 of its 15 shots from beyond the arc and Hall finished 2-of-7 overall. Frey hit three 3-pointers.
EWU guard Tyler Kidd hit four of Eastern’s seven makes from deep but the Eagles shot 28 percent from distance and 41 percent overall. Kidd made EWU’s final jump shot with four minutes to play and Jesse Hunt notched Eastern’s final field goal with 2:35 left.
“We kept the league’s all-time leading scorer to five points, which is pretty good and part of the game plan but some of the other guys on their team stepped up and played really well,” EWU second-year head coach Shantay Legans said after the game. “They are a good ball club and that’s what you need to have. Kirby went 8-of-11, maybe had a career high. Other guys played great. Frey made big shots. They were prepared, went zone and they did a good job changing the momentum of that game.”
Montana State’s attention now turns to playing against a wounded Idaho squad that suffered a 100-59 loss at Montana on Thursday night. The Vandals, who have the second-youngest roster in Division I basketball with no seniors and just one junior in leading scorer Trevon Allen, are 1-10 in league play.
“This is part of conference play, the best part of the season,” Frey said. “This is our third game in six days. It’s never going to be pretty. You just have to find a way. It’s just the confidence for us to be able to keep battling on the defensive end and stay together. When we do that on, it keeps our confidence going on the offensive end and we keep it rolling.”
Reporting and photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.