BOZEMAN, Montana — Joshua Patton is one of the most established big men in the Big Sky Conference.
And Sacramento State navigated its non-conference schedule in historic fashion, riding a deliberate, plodding style and a nationally ranked scoring defense to a 7-2 mark, the best in the league entering the beginning of Big Sky play.
In the first half in the Hornets’ league opener at Montana State on Saturday, Patton did what he wanted, scoring 16 points without much resistance against a Bobcat squad filled with new faces, including first-year head coach Danny Sprinkle.
But in the second half, Montana State dominated the action defensively for 20 straight minutes and Jubrile Belo established himself as a peer on the block to Patton.
In other words, it’s not just Sprinkle’s presence that is different at MSU. Everything is different for these Bobcats.
An established scoring threat on the block; a consistent defensive effort; a team, despite still searching for individual roles, that plays loose and without fear; the Sprinkle era is officially underway in the Big Sky.
Belo scored 10 of his 18 points after halftime, helping put Patton in foul trouble in the process. The Bobcats consistently shifted crisply in their zone defense, holding the Hornets to 32 percent shooting after halftime and 34 percent overall. And Montana State ushered in a new period when it comes to conference play with a 66-51 victory in front of 3,349 on Saturday afternoon at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse.
“I liked our mindset,” Sprinkle said after his first Big Sky win as a head coach. “From start to finish, I liked our mindset. It started on Christmas night. Sometimes, Christmas night practice can be a little sloppy as you can imagine. Even a couple of guys came over to my house and ate. We fed them pretty good. But we ran it off of them that night (laughs).
“I could tell by the focus that those guys had on Christmas night, I knew we were going to play well. I didn’t know if we were going to win but I knew we were going to play well.”
Montana State started 4-1 in Big Sky play last season and 4-0 the year before. But the mania that accompanied everything about Brian Fish’s five years at the helm was absent on Saturday. Instead, a confident if perhaps naïve group of Bobcats hung tough with a team that entered the game third in Division I men’s basketball in scoring defense.
Senior point guard Harald Frey, the league’s Freshman of the Year four years ago and an all-league pick each of the last two seasons, scored 11 points in the first half to keep MSU out in front. He finished with 18 points, including a pivotal 3-pointer that helped break the game open.
“It was fun winning that last first conference game,” Frey said. “Now we have that first one on the books. There is still a long way to go but we are trying to take it one game at a time.”
More than any other factor, Montana State’s ability to put the clamps down helped MSU move to 1-0 in league play, 4-1 at home and 7-5 overall.
“We knew this was going to be a physical game,” Frey said. “They have some big guys and they play a big lineup, bigger than the normal Big Sky team. They pride themselves on defense and rebounding and being the more physical team. We knew it was going to come down to the non-skill attributes and I thought we brought the fight to them.”
Montana State built a 37-28 lead in the first half and then locked up the second 20 minutes. With Belo leading the charge, the Bobcats did not allow Patton to do much of anything after intermission. Patton went 5-of-5 from the floor and 6-of-7 from the free throw line in the first half. He was 1-of-7 from the field and did not shoot a free throw after halftime.
And down the stretch, Montana State dumped the ball to Belo for buckets when needed, showing a true post scoring threat that MSU has not had for more than a decade.
“I taught Jubrile a thing or two,” Frey said with a laugh. “He definitely gives us a different dimension than we have had in the past. His skill and physicality speaks for itself. It’s definitely something we like to go to and one of our strengths for sure. It makes a point guard’s life way easier.”
Belo helped get Patton into foul trouble, capitalizing on the most aggressive shot blocker in the league trying not to foul out. Belo made four of six shots after the break.
When the 6-foot-9, long-armed Patton had four fouls, MSU dumped the ball to Belo on three consecutive possessions despite the fact that Patton had collected two of his three blocks just moments before. Belo scored on both, announcing his presence to the rest of the league in the process.
“We were prepared, honesty, because our non-conference schedule, we played Cal State-Bakersfield (MSU lost its last time out in Bakersfield) and they are a more physical team than Sac State so the whole week, we emphasized post defense and being physical in the post,” Belo said.
“It was very important to be aggressive because by being aggressive, it makes the team have to make adjustments and he is a big role in their offense. As long as he is off the court, we can be more productive.”
MSU pushed its lead to double figures on a Frey bucket less than a minute into the second half and led by double digits thereafter. Frey’s final of three 3-pointers about eight minutes into the second half came off a loose ball as the MSU shot clock ran down and capped an 8-0 run that gave the hosts a 51-33 lead. Belo’s dunk with 1:37 left gave MSU a 64-45 lead, the largest of the night.
Sprinkle was an All-Big Sky player between 1996 and 2000 with the Bobcats. He spent most of the next two decades as an assistant at Cal-State Northridge and Cal State-Fullerton.
During that time, Sprinkle crossed paths with Sac State veteran head coach Brian Katz. The slick, well-respected coach has been the head coach at Sac State since 2008. Before that, he was one of the greatest junior college coaches in the country, leading San Joaquin Delta CC from 1993 until 2008.
“It’s crazy because I’ve known Coach Katz forever,” Sprinkle said. “I used to recruit some of his players. He’s one of the greatest junior college coaches ever in California. If you can coach in the Big Sky, I don’t care where you are, if you can coach in the Big Sky for that long, you are dang good. It’s fun to compete against him.”
Montana State now must make the conference schedule turnaround, but this one to prepare for a Monday game against Northern Arizona.
“We keep saying rent is due every day and we paid rent today,” Frey said. “Now we have to get back to it tomorrow because we have another tough team coming in on Monday.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.