Big Sky Conference

Bobcats prepare for crucial tilt with Vandals

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The Bobcats face their most pivotal game of the season thus far on Thursday night in Bozeman.

Montana State’s old rival comes to Brick Breeden Fieldhouse in search of a season sweep and a leg up in the increasingly heated Big Sky Conference men’s basketball race. The Idaho Vandals posted an 83-81 overtime win over the Bobcats in Moscow the second weekend of January on a tip-in by Brayon Blake with three seconds left in the extra period.

Since then Idaho has won three out of four, the lone loss to first-place Weber State. The Vandals are 4-3 in conference play, a game up on the 4-4 Bobcats. Idaho’s four league victories have come against MSU, Idaho State, Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, all four teams in the bottom half of the league standings. ISU, SUU and NAU have won a combined four conference games.

Idaho head coach Don Verlin/ by Brooks Nuanez

Idaho head coach Don Verlin/ by Brooks Nuanez

The Bobcats boast a similar, if not slightly stronger resume. MSU has won three straight after a 1-4 start to league play that included losses to Weber State, Eastern Washington, Idaho and North Dakota. Montana State has victories over Idaho State and Northern Colorado at home plus last week’s road sweep — MSU’s first since February of 2015 — over Sacramento State and Portland State. The four opponents MSU has defeated have won 11 combined Big Sky games.

“We have a lot of confidence, especially because our defense is getting better,” MSU sophomore shooting guard Devonte Klines said earlier this week. “As long as we stay vocal and trust each other on the defensive end, we will be fine. We all have a lot of confidence coming into this week.”

RELATED: Vandals hope to live up to preseason expectations

Idaho is led by silky-smooth guard Victor Sanders. The 6-foot-5 slasher is averaging 23.4 points per game during league play while shooting nearly 90 percent at the free throw line. His three free throws at the end of regulation against MSU pushed the game into overtime during a 27-point, one of his seven 20-point games this season.

Montana State’s Tyler Hall, one of the nation’s leading scorers at 23.1 points per game overall, scored 22 points in MSU’s 71-65 win at Portland State. True freshman point guard Harald Frey led the Bobcats in scoring in each of their other two victories during the winning streak.

On Tuesday, Skyline Sports caught up with MSU third-year head coach Brian Fish about his team’s pivotal matchup against the Vandals.

What’s the mood of the team coming off a road sweep?

Fish: “Good question, fair question but honestly, it’s been really good all year. They are young. They have been driving. You guys are at practice a lot. They play hard and they are trying to compete. Everybody likes to be rewarded and have some success and that’s good. But to say it changed them, it hasn’t. They’ve been working and they’ve been a good group to work with. I’m been happy with that. I’m just glad to see them get rewarded.”

When you see a team for the second time, especially when you played a two-point overtime game at Idaho, do you change a lot? 

Montana State junior Benson Osayande

Montana State junior Benson Osayande

“The one thing about league games is you show your cards about how you are going to guard some things. If it worked, maybe you stay with it. If it didn’t work, maybe you make some changes. They are a team that quite honestly, we gave up 83 points and we put them on the line 45 times and everything else, we guarded well. So we have to play good defense without fouling, keep them off the line. They are well coached. They do a good job of clogging the lanes up, gumming that up. We have to handle some things they threw at us a lot more than some other things. We have to quit fouling. The hidden statistic is that the last three games, we haven’t been out-scored at the free throw line.”

Rebounds got you late in that Idaho game, giving them second chances…

“That’s there M.O. Every time you have a strength, you have a weakness. Their strengths are they go to chase the ball well. They are big-bodied guys and they get after it. You learn from experience. You are up three there with 22 seconds left. Their situation, the ball goes up in the air, they might as well go try to get it because if they get it, it rewards them and if they don’t get it, they aren’t going to win. They throw it all at you. We have to handle it better on our end and understand the time and the score and finish it out.”

Earning two road wins, how does that help from a coaching perspective?

“I thought they’ve been buying in all year. Their attention to detail has improved as we have more practices. But in coaching, for me personally, it’s like every day is Tuesday. I feel like I see you guys seven days a week. For them, they get a little more bounce, they like it. I’m sure going to class is more fun on Mondays when you get two. But at the same time, it’s every day, such a routine in this league, Thursday-Saturday that you don’t really think about it much. It was fun Saturday, then Sunday, you throw in the Idaho tape and you start going ‘Oh my gosh, that’s a really good team.’ It doesn’t last too long.”

Vic Sanders is so good getting to the free throw line. How do you corral a guy like him?

 “He’s good. I was watching him today. Keep things in perspective, but he moves like Reggie Miller did. He’s constantly moving. He’s in great shape. He is fluid. He understands the different types of defense you can throw at him. I’m impressed with what he does.”

Benson Osayande played well on Saturday. When he gives you long stretches, what does that give you when you can play him with Sam Neumann and Zach Green?

 “That’s something that has gone on during this three-game winning streak is we have gotten a lot of production out of the four and five spots from a group of guys that have really helped us. Benson’s three offensive rebound put-backs when we were struggling was key in that game. I like his progress, I like DK’s (Devin Kirby’s) progress. Some games are better fits than other games. That was a good fit for Benson. He was very effective and things went well for us.”

Idaho is very vocal on defense. Is that a goal for your team to talk like that?

“Because of their age, they do a good job of talking. Coach Verlin does a good job teaching defense. If we are a year from now with this group and we are still talking about our team not talking, then we haven’t gotten where we want to get. This same group is the same group they threw at us last year and they should be that way.”

Other key information:

Montana State is ranked No. 290 in the NCAA RPI index.

Sacramento State, led by ninth-year head coach Don Verlin, is ranked No. 276 in the NCAA RPI index.

When: Thursday, 7 p.m. MDT

Where: Brick Breeden Fieldhouse, Bozeman

Radio: 1450 KMMS

Watch: watchbigsky.com

Series: Montana State leads 60-49

Last: Idaho beat Montana State on a tip-in at the overtime buzzer 83-81 in Moscow on January 7, 2017.

Probable starters

Montana State

G – Harald Frey, 6-1, Fr., 12.3 ppg

G – Tyler Hall, 6-5, Soph., 23.1 ppg

G – Devonte Klines, Soph., 5-11, 5.1 ppg

F – Zach Green, 6-4, Jr., 10.6 ppg

F – Sam Neumann, 6-5, Soph., 5.7 ppg

Idaho

G –Chad Sherwood, 6-2, Jr., 5.6 ppg

G – Victor Sanders, 6-5, Jr., 19.7 ppg

F – Jordan Scott, 6-6, Jr., 4.8 ppg

F – Arkadiy Mkrtychyan, 6-7, Jr., 5.3 ppg

C – Nate Sherwood, 6-8, Soph., 5.4 ppg

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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