BOZEMAN, Montana — The Bobcats have been a well-oiled offensive machine for most of 2020.
Montana State’s women’s basketball team has used the deepest roster in the Big Sky Conference led by a group of five unselfish seniors to put on offensive showcases for most of January and February.
The only time over the last month the Bobcats have looked anything other than utterly dominant with the basketball in their hands came in an ugly three quarters in Missoula against the rival Lady Griz.
On the first day of February, the Bobcats missed 19 of their first 20 shots from beyond the 3-point arc. Yet the renewed dedication to defense and physicality that the program has in head coach Tricia Binford’s 15th season helped MSU pull through.
That afternoon at Dahlberg Arena, Montana State forced the Lady Griz to miss all 15 of their fourth quarter field goal attempts and found a way to get the game to overtime. In the final two minutes of regulation and the extra period, MSU league MVP candidate Fallyn Freije took over, scoring 14 of her game-high 27 points to lift Montana State to a 66-61 win.
Since MSU took down the once-mighty Lady Griz three weeks ago, the Bobcats have gone back to being an offensive juggernaut, plowing through any and every Big Sky opponent in their paths.
Coming into Saturday’s rivalry rematch against the Lady Griz, the Bobcats scored 200 points in their last two games, including 102 in a 35-point win at Weber State.
MSU had only lost twice to Montana in the last 10 matchups of a rivalry once owned by the Lady Griz. But the few times MSU did lose and the only times the Bobcats struggled, the Lady Griz used defensive gimmicks to force the frustration.
On Saturday afternoon in front of a raucous crowd of 3,717 at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse, the Lady Griz decided to walk the ball up the court and run methodical yet ineffective sets for the first 18 minutes of the game.
The Bobcats never took the bait. Instead, Montana State poured it on, doubling up the Lady Griz in the first 15 minutes of action and cruising to a 92-78 victory. The point total is the highest Montana State has ever scored in 110 matchups between the rivals.
“This is just so special to me and for us,” said MSU senior captain Fallyn Freije as tears of joy welled up in her eyes. “This is what I dreamed about coming here: to play with girls that were so skilled and teammates that worked hard every single day. This is the stuff I envisioned, being on a team where everyone can score, cutting down nets, water in the locker room. This is just what I prayed for, what I envisioned and I can’t explain it.
“It’s really meaningful to me and I know how meaningful this rivalry is,” the North Dakota transfer said. “To win both games this year and to have such a bench and such a team supporting you and the fans supporting us, there is no better feeling.”
Montana State defeated Montana for the ninth time in 11 matchups, including sweeping the Lady Griz for the second year in a row. The win is also Montana State’s 11th in a row, moving the Bobcats to 15-1 in league play, 19-6 overall. The win helped Montana State sew up its third regular-season Big Sky championship in the last five seasons.
“It felt really special, especially with your community there,” Binford said, her hair still dripping from the water bath her team gave her moments earlier. “This is a really special community here in Bozeman that has been built by all the people that fill that gym.
“With the Spirit of the West (marching band) and our spirit squad, all they do to create this atmosphere, our athletic director, our department, it was a really fun moment.
“But at the same time, we addressed that we are not done yet. This is something that is really, really hard. A lot of things have to go well and right and these kids have found ways to finish games. It’s great to celebrate that with them.”
The loss drops Montana fourth-year head coach Shannon Schweyen to 1-7 in her coaching career. An All-American during his playing career and the all-time leading scorer in the history of the Big Sky until last season was either a player or a coach for most of a run that saw former head coach Robin Selvig to a 77-24 record all-time against Montana State.
With the exception of a win in Missoula three years ago, Schweyen and the Lady Griz have been simply overmatched by the in-state rival they once dominated.
“It’s always frustrating when you are not scoring and other people are lighting it up,” Schweyen said. “It takes a really good team and some mature individuals to fight through that. I thought we had one possession where somebody didn’t have some body and they were on each other a little bit about that. But we reminded ourselves that we were going to stick together and communicate better.
“I felt like our girls fought. I liked the run we made even in the second half. We kept battling. But getting a stop on them was tough to do.”
In a back and forth first quarter in which Montana State established its smooth offensive operation, the Bobcats closed the frame with a well-executed play that led to freshman point guard Darian White setting up junior shooter Tori Martell for the first of Martell’s four first-half 3-pointers.
That triple gave Montana State a 23-14 lead and momentum heading into a second quarter that would tip the scale entirely in the home team’s favor.
“I thought our shoot-around was fantastic and our week has been locked in all week long,” Binford said. “This team, every day, are having more fun with each other. They want to accomplish big things and it always takes that next game on your list to continue to move forward and get better.”
Montana ended the first half on an 8-0 run that included the first two makes from deep for the Lady Griz on an afternoon they shot 41 percent overall, including 3-of-10 from beyond the arc, in a gym they have now lost four straight in. But that was all the visitors could do to stop the bleeding as Montana State otherwise completely dominated the period.
The Bobcats doubled up the Lady Griz by building a 42-21 lead with 4:44 left in the first half. MSU entered halftime with a 46-31 advantage after shooting 51.5 percent from the floor, including 8-of-13 from beyond the arc. Martell hit four 3-pointers in four attempts to lead the barrage.
“When they shot that way in Missoula, we were pretty aware that they would shoot it better here at home,” Schweyen said with echoes of the celebrating Bobcats’ screaming on their way into the locker room. “We also missed 11 layups in Missoula so we felt like we could shoot better as well.
“They got off to a good start making those and it obviously makes the zone tougher to stay in and they are a challenge in man just because of their transition. They are a handful to try to contain.”
In the third quarter, the Bobcats endured a scoring drought of four minutes, 25 seconds, missing nine straight shots during the span. The Lady Griz never once cut the lead to single digits.
And when the Bobcats caught fire once again, Montana State punished the Lady Griz like they have punished teams around the Big Sky.
By the time the dust settled, Montana State’s point total was the largest its ever scored against UM. Four the fourth time in conference play, six Bobcats scored in double figures.
Senior Oliana Squires, who missed eight straight 3-pointers in Missoula, hit three triples in the third quarter alone and scored nine of her 15 during the frame. Squires hit a 3-pointer in the waning seconds of the third quarter as Montana State’s offensive execution was best displayed late in quarters on Saturday.
“Any time you can hit a clutch shot at the end of a quarter or the clock against you, those are big momentum swings,” Binford said. “And someone like Tori and Oliana coming in from the bench and getting you started is big.
“When Oli is on, she can do some special things, especially with the ball in her hands. When she is rolling, she is hard to stop.”
Freije picked her spots, scoring five of her seven first-quarter points to spark MSU to a 7-2 run to open the game, scoring seven more in the third quarter and finishing with a team-high 18 points. Senior Blair Braxton came off the bench to score 15 points and grab seven rebounds. White sprinted and shifted her way to 15 points while dishing out four of MSU’s 17 assists. And senior Madeline Smith scored 10 points, grabbed with rebounds and notched four assists in her final Cat-Griz game.
Montana has had four scorers in double-figures in six of its last eight games. MSU has put five scorers in double figures four times in that span and Saturday marked the third time this month alone six Bobcats have scored 10 or more. Yet Schweyen said it was more of a trend than a strength of the team that just picked her defense apart.
“I would say that is the story of the league this year,” Schweyen said. “I don’t think it’s particularly different. There is a lot of teams in this league that are particularly balanced. We have good balance too. We had several kids in double figures. I think that’s something where there hasn’t been some dominant scorers like we have seen the past couple of years.”
Martell hit a fifth 3-pointer midway through the fourth to push the lead to 85-60, the largest margin of the afternoon. MSU never went on more than a 10-0 run yet led from wire to wire.
“The first time around, we were caught up with what it looked like and the second time around, we were just shot-ready,” Binford said, referring to her team’s execution against UM’s matchup zone. “We were able to basically run our actions and not overthink it. The last couple of weeks, our kids have been really sharing the ball well and being a lot more shot-ready from the perimeter.”
The loss drops the Lady Griz to 9-7 in league play, still alive for a top-five finish and the bye in the first round of next month’s Big Sky Tournament. Montana is alone in fifth place with four games to play.
“We are taking it one at a time,” Schweyen said. “Looking at the schedule, a lot of other teams have some tough games too. A lot of people we are still up against still have to play Montana State and Montana. So they have some tough games. We have to take care of what we can do which is learn from every game we play in and try to get better every day and hope in the end, we have snuck in there and pull one out.”
Montana State will also play four more regular-season games with little to no pressure to clinch the top seed. But the Bobcats remain hungry.
“This team has been unique as well as how well they have been able to finish games,” Binford said. “We have had some overtimes and we won two out of three. They continue to stay locked in and challenge each other to stay locked in. I still want to build momentum going into the tournament and this is the first step.
“Now we want to get this behind us and lock into playing our best basketball.”
Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.