Big Sky men's basketball tournament

Bobcats bully Bengals, advance to Big Sky semis

on

BOISE, Idaho — Danny Sprinkle is usually one cool customer as he roams the sidelines for the Montana State Bobcats.

In a conference filled with passionate and sometimes demonstrative coaches, Sprinkle stays calmer than most.

During Thursday’s quarterfinal game against a previously unfamiliar opponent, Sprinkle had steam coming out of his ears.

A variety of controversial calls that elicited plenty of loud protest from the roughly 100 Bobcat fans in attendance caused Sprinkle to earn one of the first technical fouls of his young head coaching career.

But that emotion could also be seen clearly as the clock wound down. With less than 10 seconds left and the final result finally in hand, Sprinkle let out an elated scream and gave a passionate fist pump, eliciting a celebration from his bench.

For the first time in Sprinkle’s two years at the helm, for the first time in more than a decade overall, Montana State is heading to the final four of the Big Sky Conference men’s basketball tournament.

In the most physical game of the tournament to that point, the fifth-seeded Bobcats never waivered to the controversial calls or to fourth-seeded Idaho State’s brutish style. Instead, Sprinkle’s squad took care of business, posting a 71-63 victory and advancing to Friday’s semifinal to take on top-seeded Southern Utah.

Montana State head coach Danny Sprinkle reacts to a controversial call during his team’s win over Idaho State in the Big Sky Tournament quarterfinals/by Brooks Nuanez

“That was a tremendously competitive game for 40 minutes,” said Sprinkle, who had a 6-3 record as a player for MSU between 1996 and 1999. “I thought it was the first time in a four to six-week span where we played every possession like it was our last. Our guys were playing hard, flying around and competing.

“We always talk about how there’s a difference than competing and playing hard. I thought we really competed hard for 40 minutes…I’m proud of our guys for fighting through a lot of things and coming up with a win.”

In a matchup between two teams that didn’t play in the regular-season — the fifth such matchup in a row to start this tournament — a Bengal team that went from last place in Ryan Looney’s first season to the No. 4 seed this season battled throughout the game. Tarik Cool scored 18 points and Brayden Parker added 12 as ISU hung around but could never assume control after MSU’s initial run to close the first half with a lead.

“I thought Montana State played extremely well today,” Looney said. “I’m proud of our guys for how much progress they made in our program during a strange time. Our guys could’ve packed it in a long time ago but they battled through a lot.

“We had 12 games cancelled throughout the season because of the opponent testing positive. I thought our coaching staff did a good job of finding alternative teams to play. And I thought our guys did a really good job of staying flexible and getting ready to play whoever was thrown at them.”

Idaho State did not play Southern Utah, Weber State or Montana State during the regular season.

BOX SCORE

With three minutes to go in the first half, Montana State had managed to claw its way back into a game that Idaho State dictated early on. Trailing 29-28, MSU freshman Kellen Tynes provided his first of several sparks, hitting a jump shot coming off a ball screen before snaring a steal that turned into an old-fashioned 3-point play.

That helped Montana State enter halftime with a 37-29 lead. ISU cut the lead to three points with 9:52 left but never got any closer, as Montana State led for the final 23 minutes of the game.

Montana State center Jubrile Belo bulls through Idaho State’s defense/ by Brooks Nuanez

Down the stretch, Montana State senior Xavier Bishop got to the free throw line at will, converting all 11 of his attempts from the charity stripe on the way to scoring a game-high 22 points. MSU junior big man Jubrile Belo helped set the tone physically on both ends, battling with ISU bruiser Brayden Parker on the block all game long.

“It was very physical,” Belo said. “I realized it from the jump. We just have to control what we can control, control every rebound.

“Our energy needed to be up from the start so I knew I had to come with a certain mentality to let them know the game is going to be like this for the whole game.”

Belo managed to bull his way to 19 points, including hitting nine of his 13 free throw attempts.

MSU finished 32-of-40 from the free throw line, which helped overcome a 1-of-9 performance from beyond the 3-point arc.

Montana State senior Xavier Bishop drives to the rim/ by Brooks Nuanez

“I’m really proud,” Bishop said. “These are my brothers and we wanted to fight for this. We got the stops we needed, figured it out and kept playing.”

More than any offensive statistic though, the grit and toughness it took for Montana State to move on is a huge corner turned for a program that has made a habit of early tournament exits.

Montana State held Idaho State to 31 percent shooting, including just 3-of-19 from beyond the arc. Senior Abdul Mohamed grabbed nine rebounds and Amin Adamu chipped in seven boards as MSU won the battle on the glass, 39-30.

“This took a lot physically, but it took a lot mentally,” Sprinkle said. “Physically, that’s the most physical team we’ve played. Parker is a big ol’ hog down there. (Malik) Porter is so athletic. And all their guards, they put a lot of pressure on you.

“We knew it was a game we had to control the paint in order to win.”

Montana State senior Xavier Bishop celebrates with Jubrile Belo (13) and Kellen Tynes after converting a layup while being fouled/ by Brooks Nuanez

The last time Montana State advanced this far in the conference tournament, Brad Huse was the head coach, the Bobcats won a first-round game against rival Montana in Missoula when Will Bynum beat the buzzer and Sprinkle was an assistant at Cal State Fullerton.

That 2009 Bobcat squad won at Weber State in the semifinals before falling to Portland State in the championship game.

Early-round losses have been the norm since then. Huse never won another tournament game before being let go following the 2014 season. Brian Fish won one tournament game in his five seasons at the helm: a victory over bottom-seeded Idaho two years ago.

Last season, Sprinkle helped MSU earn a first-round bye in the tournament before the entire postseason was called off. Now he owns a Big Sky tournament win and a chance for more.

Montana State’s Jubrile Belo hammers home a dunk against Idaho State/ By Brooks Nuanez

“We just have to play hard, have energy and the rest will take care of itself,” Bishop said. “We are going to need tonight’s effort times 10 tomorrow. If we do that, everything will take care of itself.”

Standing in the way of MSU’s first championship game appearance in 11 seasons is a talented Southern Utah team that moved to 20-3 this season with a 91-83 win over Northern Colorado on Thursday morning.

“It’s going to take another 40 minutes of competing,” Sprinkle said. “We can’t have live ball turnovers against Southern Utah, I know that. They are tremendous in transition. They can get hot and going if you turn the ball over. We have to be efficient offensively and do what we did tonight on the boards.

“We have to have guys make special plays. We have to be in attack mode.”

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.

Recommended for you