RENO — The Bobcats rallied from the depths of a horrendous losing skid at the end of 2016 to scream through February as one of the hottest teams in the Big Sky Conference. But Montana State’s spurt hit a wall at Weber State. MSU must now find a way to bounce back, survive and advance at the Big Sky Tournament.
Montana State lost 10 of 11 games in December to fall to 6-12 to the bewilderment of third-year head coach Brian Fish. MSU’s head man lamented over and over that he refused to believe that his team would endure the struggles that trademarked Fish’s first two seasons trying to rebuild the Bobcats. Following a 90-85 loss to North Dakota in Bozeman, Montana State turned the tables and got red hot.
The Bobcats put together two five-game winning streaks sandwiched around a two-game skid that included a loss at rival Montana and at Northern Arizona. Following the NAU misstep, MSU ripped off five more wins, including a 78-69 victory over the Griz to snap a 13-game losing streak to its rival.
MSU had a chance to secure the No. 3 seed in the Big Sky Tournament, which begins Tuesday afternoon at the Reno Events Center, with a win at Weber State in its season finale. Instead, Montana State star sophomore Tyler Hall was held to 2-of-11 shooting on an 11-point night, Weber largely negated point guard Harald Frey — the recently anointed Big Sky Freshman of the Year — and won its final home game 76-67 to sew up a 12th league win and the No. 3 seed.
“That loss makes us want to play harder, let us know we still have to play tough defense to win ball games,” said Quinton Everett, MSU’s lone senior and one of the league’s top reserves. “We can’t go in with a lack of energy or a lack of focus or we will lose games like we did Saturday.”
The loss dropped Montana State from a tie for third to sixth, meaning instead of earning a first-round bye, the Bobcats will play in the final game of Tuesday’s opening round. MSU takes on Southern Utah, the 11th-place team in an 11-team field. Fish said a bye would have been nice for his team for a variety of reasons but playing on Tuesday with a chance to earn a rematch with Weber State on Thursday is not a bad scenario.
“It doesn’t enter my mind,” Fish said of missing a top-five finish and the bye that comes with it. “We play Tuesday and try to go. I’ll tell you this: I was going to be nervous if we played Thursday about a team playing on Tuesday and getting a game in on the court. I was worried about that. I don’t think it starts to hurt you until Friday.”
Given that Montana beat Idaho State and Idaho beat Southern Utah on the last day of the regular season, MSU’s battle in Ogden essentially amounted to a winner-take-third, loser-take-sixth contest. The Bobcats have played SUU just once this season, posting an 83-78 win in Cedar City two nights after the NAU loss, the defeat Fish considered MSU’s worst this season.
“We won’t really know if Saturday’s loss will affect us until game time but whether we had won that game or lost it, you have to put that away and go because you are playing again and it’s tournament time,” Fish said. “The teams that handle that best are the teams that advance. It’s another test for this team to see how we handle it.”
The Bobcats stayed in Salt Lake City Sunday and flew to Reno on Monday, arriving in the afternoon. MSU practiced at the University of Nevada, dealing with the lights in the arena going out twice. Fish joked his team looked great with the lights on and not so good playing in the dark.
“The mood was good and I think we are ready,” Frey said. “Everybody seems locked in and everyone knows why we are here.”
Monday brought travel, a two-hour study hall and preparation for any exams MSU needs to take, which will be conducted on Tuesday morning.
“This is what 31 games gives you and we will do the same thing, go at it the exact same routine, study halls, everything we can do to keep it as normal as possible,” Fish said.
Monday also brought good news for the Bobcats as Hall was a unanimous first-team All-Big Sky Conference selection. Last season’s Freshman of the Year shattered all sorts of records, averaging 22.9 points per game, shooting nearly 50 percent from the floor in league play and hitting 113 3-pointers, the second-most in all Division I.
The Bobcats also made history as Frey, a southpaw from Oslo, Norway, was named the league’s Freshman of the Year, giving MSU back-to-back top rookies for the first time in league history.
“It’s fun man, definitely validation for the hard work we are putting in here,” said Frey, who averaged 13.8 points per game and proved to be one of the steadiest guards in the league already, earning third-team all-conference honors as well. “Right now, we are all locked in on the tournament. Tyler got a unanimous first-team all-conference and he’s more locked in on the game tomorrow than anyone. I feel like we all have that common goal to win this tournament.”
Frey shot nearly 55 percent from the floor and nearly 52 percent from beyond the 3-point arc over the first 14 games of Big Sky play. Now that he’s a known commodity, he’s been denied the ball on the perimeter more frequently. Frey scored just four points on four shots and turned the ball over six times at Weber State.
“It’s definitely tougher,” Frey said. “At first, I was kind of a secret I guess, the international freshman. Now you can definitely see teams are starting to play closer and I don’t get the same type of looks. We have definitely been doing a lot of film on that and trying to adjust as well as we can.
“It’s a chess match,” Fish said. “He came out and no one knew who he was, same as Tyler. They adjusted to Tyler and Tyler had to adjust. He’s getting the same thing. Teams are being a little more physical with him. He’s got to play through that. What was open two weeks ago ain’t open.”
While Frey finding his groove again will be a factor for MSU’s success, Montana State’s ability to corral bullish Southern Utah power guard Randy Onwuasor will be equally important. The Texas Tech transfer burst onto the Big Sky scene, tying Hall for the league lead on scoring at 22.8 points.
“Big, strong guy, tough, hard-nosed, drawing fouls, really good finisher with his right hand,” Fish said. “He’s a load. He can go get a game on his own. That’s a concern.”
The 6-foot-3, 215-pounder leads SUU with 6.6 rebounds per game and the 83 percent free throw shooter gets to the stripe more than anyone in the league.
“He’s a very tough guard,” said Everett, who will likely split primary defensive duties on Onwuasor with sophomore Devonte Klines. “We just have to be a little physical with him, be smart on defense, don’t put him on the free throw line, stay in front of him, shoot it over us and take tough shots. We just have to force him to shoot jump shots. We would rather him shoot jump shots than get to the basket because that’s his strength.”
Offensively, the Bobcats will have to anticipate multiple defenses, including the 1-3-1 zone SUU first-year head coach Todd Simon favors. MSU will also need to battle on the boards with the bigger Thunderbirds.
“I see a well-coached team with one of the better players in the league in No. 0 (Onwuasor),” Fish said. “McGee is a very good shooter. They have Parsons back. Now he’s probably up to full speed after missing some games. I see a team that is a threat, a team with nothing to lose, a team that will throw a lot of different defenses at us because if they lose, they are supposed to lose. I expect a lot of different wrinkles.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.