RENO, Nevada — Delany Junkermier clapped her hands in frustration as her leaner in the lane rimmed out, another in a string of misses for Montana State in an arena that brought the Bobcats so much joy a year ago.
Moments later, Junkermier stepped into a 3-pointer from the wing that hit home so purely, it barely moved the net at the Reno Events Center. The triple by the MSU senior tied the contest with 10th-seeded North Dakota at 21 and sparked a streak that saw the Bobcats go from ice cold to red-hot.
Seventh-seeded MSU, the reigning Big Sky Tournament champions, missed 18 of their first 24 field goal attempts on Monday evening. Junkermier’s 3-pointer ignited a run that saw the Bobcats hit seven of its next nine, including four from beyond the arc during an 18-0 run over the final five minutes, 23 seconds of the first half.
Montana State took a 36-21 lead to halftime thanks to a run that included eight points in four minutes from true freshman Tori Martell, then used two more runs, one in the third quarter, one in the fourth, to keep the margin comfortable in posting to a 68-58 victory in the first round of the Big Sky Tournament.
“Personally, I was upset I missed that runner but I think that mentality today was next play mentality and I thought it was good for us to bounce back immediately the next play,” Junkermier said. “I thought our team responded really well with how many shots we missed early.
“It was good to get those first game jitters out of the way. We started letting things fly a little bit more after the second quarter so we should be ready to go on Wednesday.”
The Bobcats came to Reno as the No. 1 overall seed each of the last two Marchs after claiming back-to-back regular-season Big Sky titles. MSU lost on a half court heave at the buzzer by Idaho State’s Juliet Jones in its first ever game at the neutral site tournament in 2016. The Bobcats won three games in four days to secure their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1993 last year.
This time around, MSU stumbled to a 9-9 Big Sky record as the team struggled to replace the toughness and grit provided by Big Sky MVP Peyton Ferris and first-team All-Big Sky captain Riley Nordgaard. That resulted in having to play in the first round of the league tournament for the first time in the final year of Reno.
Montana State was visibly nervous early before settling in late in its first appearance in the Biggest Little City in the World since confetti fell from the ceiling and the Bobcats cut down the nets.
“I felt a lot more confident on the floor because the year before, we lost on a buzzer-beater my sophomore year so coming back that first day last year was a little nerve wracking,” Junkermier said. “Getting back on the floor today felt kind of like being at home. That’s our main goal: get back to where we were last year.”
Navigating the unknown contributed to a slow start that saw the Bobcats miss eight of their first nine shots. But once Junkermier drilled her first 3-pointer, Montana State was off and running. MSU hit 12 of its next 24 shots to take a 52-41 lead into the fourth quarter and handled North Dakota’s pressure for the duration of the second half to lead for the final 36 minutes, 17 seconds of the action.
“We are using this as a positive because it’s the situation we are in,” MSU 13th-year head coach Tricia Binford said. “If you are in the other side of things, you are going to use that as your positive.”
Martell, a left-hander from Somerset, Wisconsin, showed no nerves in her first Big Sky Tournament appearance. She drilled her first two 3-point tries, both during MSU’s explosive first half run and finished with 10 points in 14 minutes.
“I just tried to step up and be the spark we needed in the second quarter,” Martell said. “I don’t really see it as a different court. I wasn’t nervous. I just want to have fun with the team, be on this court with the seniors.”
In six seasons in the Big Sky Conference — UND will leave the league for the Summit League in basketball, the Missouri Valley in football — Travis Brewster led the Fighting Hawks to a pair of league regular-season titles (2014, 2017), three 20-win seasons and four straight appearances in the WNIT.
Despite the efforts of junior Lexi Klabo both this season and throughout the game with Montana State, UND could not find a breakthrough in its final season in the league. A team with no seniors finished Big Sky play with a 5-13 mark and finish the year 12-18 overall.
“You look at this season, there’s growth and sometimes growth is slow,” Brewster said. “I’m proud of this group and how they handled themselves. We played a team today that knocked down more shots than we did.”
Klabo, a first-team All-Big Sky selection, posted a double-double of 24 points and 12 rebounds. Her 3-pointer with 7:50 left but the MSU lead to 53-47 before MSU sophomore Oliana Squires’ triple, one of 11 Montana State 3s, pushed the lead back to nine. A pair of Fallon Freije free throws sliced the Montana State advantage to 56-53 with 4:39 left before the defending champs mounted one final run.
“I thought we came out with good energy and intensity and our defense was good in the third quarter but they hit big shots,” Klabo said. “We just didn’t knock down shots and they did.”
Junkermier, who finished with 15 points and six rebounds, hit a pair of triples on back-to-back possessions to give her team a 64-53 lead with three minutes left.
A pair of Klabo free throws and a Melissa Dailey 3-pointer cut the MSU lead to six before Junkermier hit 1-of-2 free throws to keep the lead at seven points and three possessions.
“My thing is you are going to shoot your shot,” Junkermier said after making 5-of-17 from the floor, 4-of-11 from beyond the arc. “As a senior, you just have to keep shooting, trust the process, trust all the work you’ve put in. I just kept shooting when I was open and I got a couple crucial ones to drop.”
Senior Rebekah Hatchard got to the rim at will in the second half, scoring 11 of her team-high 18 points and knocked down three free throws in the final 30 seconds to ice the victory for the Bobcats.
Montana State emerged victorious despite UND winning the battle of the boards 47-41. The Fighting Hawks grabbed 16 offensive rebounds, including 11 in the second half and scored 15 second-chance points. But the Bobcats hung tough, forced 16 UND turnovers and made the Fighting Hawks miss nine of their final 10 shots.
“We have yet to have figured that out against North Dakota. Our goal was to keep the glass even,” Binford said. “This is not a matchup that many people can say they can dominate the boards against North Dakota.”
Madeline Smith grabbed 10 rebounds to lead MSU’s charge on the glass and the Bobcats allowed just 34.3 percent shooting from UND after halftime. North Dakota missed 17 of its 23 attempts from beyond the arc.
MSU advances to play second-seeded Idaho, a team that won 13 Big Sky games thanks to the top scoring offense (77.9 points per game) in the conference. The Vandals hit 17 3-pointers and scored 95 points in an 18-point win in Bozeman in the lone matchup of the regular season between the last two tournament championship winners.
“Tough team to guard, period,” Binford said. “They have three of the best players in the conference (Mikayla Ferenz, Taylor Pierce, Geraldine McKorkell). I think it’s like four or five kids ever to hit 100 3s in one season and two of them (Ferenz and Pierce) are coming from the same team.
“It’s a challenging assignment for us and we will have to make them work. We will have to put points on the board ourselves. This is not a team you are going to keep in the 50s.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.