BOZEMAN — Tyler Hall has had his fair share of trouble getting into a scoring groove against Northern Arizona. With his entire immediate family members in attendance for the last weekend matinee of the Montana State legend’s career, Saturday proved to be no different.
But Harald Frey’s ability to take over the game allowed Hall to keep fighting. And Hall’s timely plays — from his old-fashioned 3-point play to keep NAU at bay to his clutch steal leading to a transition bucket to his dagger 3-pointer with 52 seconds left — kept the Bobcats in position to make a run.
Frey scored 11 points in the final four minutes of the first half to help the Bobcats take a seven-point cushion into the break. The junior point guard hit two of his six 3-pointers and scored 17 of his game-high 30 points after halftime. And Hall’s 14-point second half of an 18-point outing proved to be the difference as Montana State posted an 84-73 victory over NAU on Saturday afternoon.
“It’s March and you have to find a way to win a basketball game and we did,” MSU fifth-year head coach Brian Fish said. “We have to find a way to play a lot better. But I thought we played two games — at Weber (State), at Montana — where we played well and we lost. Today, didn’t play as well, counts as a win. And we got a win in March. That’s key.”
The win moves Montana State to 10-7 in Big Sky Conference play with three games left to play. MSU posted an 11-7 finish in league play when Frey was a freshman and Hall was a sophomore. Now the Bobcats are in a rare position. The Bobcats are tied with Weber State for third in the league standings.
The top five finishers receive byes in the first round of the Big Sky Tournament beginning in eight days in Boise. The No. 4 and No. 5 teams play each other in the quarterfinals. The top the seeds play teams who play in the tournament’s opening round. The last time Montana State received a bye in the league tournament came 17 years ago.
“Coach keeps talking about how everything is important but in February, they count double and in March, they count triple,” Frey said after missing his career high by a point during his fourth 30-point outing of the season. “The race right now, if you look at the standings, it’s really tight for seedings. Every win is huge and this is another step toward getting that bye in the first round.”
Montana State finishes its schedule by hosting Southern Utah on Monday night. The Bobcats play at Sacramento State on Thursday and at Portland State on Saturday before heading to Boise. The NAU win marked Montana State’s second game in 14 days, the only other outing an 89-83 loss at rival Montana.
“I’ve never had 14 days off this time of year,” Fish said. “To play one game, I had to talk to (MSU head football coach Jeff) Choate. We worked on onside kicks the other day. It’s been a football schedule here and that’s not what you really want.
“Now we play a bunch of games in a bunch of days so we have to get back in the ring.”
Behind the lights out shooting of true freshman gunner Luke Avdalovic, NAU hung around all afternoon. Avdalovic’s third 3-pointer of the first half cut the Montana State lead to 28-27 with less than five minutes to go before the break.
Montana State’s lead grew to 11, 57-46, on Frey’s fourth triple with 13 minutes to go. Avdalovic, who hit six 3-pointers and scored a career-best 24 points, answered with back-to-back 3s.
NAU would shave the lead to four points four different times in the final eight minutes. Carlos Hines’ 4th 3-pointer with 2:04 left drew NAU within six, 76-70 and gave Hines 16 points. But Frey answered with his final long bomb 30 seconds later.
“Fight is all good but the No. 1 number that matters is on the left at the end of the season,” NAU head coach Jack Murphy said after his team fell to 7-11 in league play, 9-19 overall. “But I do love our guys.
“They have battled through adversity all year long and they did it again today,” Murphy, who starts two freshmen and two sophomores, continued. “I thought they responded well at different times. We didn’t let the game get out of hand until the last minute.”
Hall hit his third 3-pointer, the 407th of his prolific career, to give the Bobcats an 82-70 cushion and essentially seal the game. Hall’s 18 points moves him to 2,398 for his career, into the Top 100 in career scoring in the history of Division I basketball. His 3-point total is the 13th-best in NCAA history.
“My family is always watching on the computer or wherever they are at so it’s fun to have them all here at once,” Hall said. “I’m excited to play in front of them.”
Frey continued to be one of the Big Sky’s most impactful players. He dished out three of his six assists during MSU’s 9-3 run during the first two minutes of the game. He had three of his first five steals in the first five minutes. And he scored 30 points despite scoring two the first 14 minutes of the game.
“Stud, complete stud, all-conference-type player,” Murphy said. “Not a senior, plays like a senior, plays like a pro. I wish it was his senior day on Monday along with Tyler Hall’s (laughs).
“He’s an outstanding player. He knows how to handle and control the game. Last year, we got him fouled out. One of the keys is trying to get him off the court.”
And Hall continued his determined effort to finish an individually phenomenal career as a winner. He converted a 3-point play with five minutes left to push the gap to seven. He had a steal on the next possession. Later on, he saved a ball off of NAU wing Chris Bowling to maintain possession.
And he had an assist to Frey on Frey’s final 3-pointer as Montana State secured its eight home win with just Monday’s senior night against Southern Utah remaining.
“Today came down to getting stops,” Hall said. “They were getting a lot of offensive boards (NAU finished with 10, including six from Bernie Andre, who finished with 18 rebounds overall) and we just had to dig deep. The game wasn’t very pretty but that’s what good teams do: close games.”
Hall and Frey combined to hit nine of MSU’s 13 made 3-pointers, shooting 24 of Montana State’s 35 attempts from deep. The Bobcats shot 47 percent overall, including 54.8 percent in the second half. Sophomore center Devin Kirby scored 10 of his 12 points in the first half.
Hall led Montana State with eight rebounds as MSU earned a 41-35 advantage on the glass.
“It’s been a long season but we are still trying to have that one day at a time mentality and when it’s all said and done, we will see where we will measure up,” Frey said. “I think this was a sloppy game but we got the job done. And now we have to key in tomorrow to get the job done and ready to go because we have another big one.”
On Monday, Hall, Keljin Blevins and Sam Neumann will play their final home games as Bobcats. The Bobcats play a Southern Utah squad that entered Saturday with a 9-8 Big Sky mark.
“It’s kind of sad but I’m really excited about it,” Hall said. “Every opportunity I get to play here is a blessing to me. I’m not going to look ahead of that.
“It will be emotional after the game. When I see my mom, that’s when. But not during the game. I’m just going to approach the game the same way.”
Editors note: Brooks Nuanez contributed the reporting of this story
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.