Big Sky Conference

NAU slips past Bobcats, earn first Big Sky win

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BOZEMAN — All of sudden, the Bobcats are reeling.

After the first 4-0 start to Big Sky Conference play in 13 years, the Montana State men’s basketball team has now lost four straight league games, a downward spiral capped by a 77-75 home loss to previously winless Northern Arizona on Thursday night.

Northern Arizona guard Torry Johnson (0) defending Montana State guard Tyler Hall (3)/by Brooks Nuanez

“NAU has some good athleticism and (head coach) Jack (Murphy) has them playing hard through some things right now,” MSU fourth-year head coach Brian Fish said. “Kudos to Jack for doing that. The problems now are with us. We’ve got to get some things solved. We’ve got to make defense a priority and get some stops and take care of the ball on the other end.

Northern Arizona entered the game as the only Big Sky team without a league victory. NAU came to Brick Breeden Fieldhouse with a 3-17 overall record, a mark that included an early-season 82-70 loss to NAIA Embry-Riddle.

Thursday night in front of 2,709 in Bozeman, NAU overcame a four-point halftime deficit, shooting 55.6 percent after halftime by going at the Bobcats relentlessly. NAU played without leading scorer JoJo Henderson, along with Corey Brown and Lenell Henry, but Torry Johnson, Geno Littles and Karl Harris picked up the slack, combining for 55 of Northern Arizona’s 77 points, including 27 after halftime. Johnson finished with a game-high 27 points.

“Our offense is not what is hurting us, it’s our defense,” MSU junior Tyler Hall said. “If we hold them to less points than we score, we are fine. We are scoring at a good rate and we are scoring enough to win games. We are just not defending.

Montana State guard Tyler Hall attempts a three with Northern Arizona forward Chris Bowling (32) defending/by Brooks Nuanez

“For the most part, we didn’t get up and guard and we got beat off the dribble,” Fish added. “That’s something we’ve been working on and we have to get better at it.”

Defensively, NAU flustered Montana State’s star in Hall once again. Montana State needed overtime in Flagstaff to overcome a 2-of-18 shooting night from the preseason Big Sky MVP. On Thursday, Hall only managed eight shot attempts, seven from downtown, and scored just seven points.

The Lumberjacks consistently trapped the ball when Hall tried to create, forcing him to pass to his teammates. In the first half, Northern Arizona left junior Sam Neumann wide open and the power forward responded by hitting four of his five 3-point attempts. He entered the game 1-of-7 from deep on the season.

In the second half, Montana State missed an array of layups — Fish estimated the Bobcats missed 14 total bunnies — and shot 41.9 percent. The Bobcats were 3-of-13 from beyond the arc after halftime and 9-of-23 overall.

Hall is now 2-of-19 from beyond the arc and 4-of-26 overall against the Lumberjacks this season. After averaging more than 26 points per game during MSU’s 4-0 league start, Hall is averaging 13.2 points per game during the losing streak.

“Honestly, I didn’t feel anything different,” Hall said when asked about NAU’s defensive plan. “They might have been hedging a little harder but mostly it was the same as usual.”

Montana State forward Konner Frey (22) attacks the basket vs Northern Arizona/by Brooks Nuanez

Montana State was picked to finish fourth in the Big Sky by the league’s coaches but received a first-place vote from NAU head coach Jack Murphy. Despite seven straight losses to open conference play, the Lumberjacks have done as good a job at limiting Hall as any conference team during Hall’s prolific two and a half seasons for the Bobcats.

“We had other guys step up but I have got to get it worked out and get more shots for Tyler,” Fish said.

MSU junior Devonte Klines scored 11 of his team-high 15 points after halftime. He had take on an elevated scoring role after sophomore point guard Harald Frey fouled out with almost four minutes left.

“Don’t relax, don’t get caught standing up on defense, worry about defense instead of offense,” Klines said about fixing what ails MSU. “Don’t hang your head when you miss a shot. Have more energy in huddles. Lead and I felt like we didn’t lead. Once Harry fouled out, we really didn’t lead. We have to come together and still play.”

The game was played with just two officials. One scheduled official encountered travel troubles and never arrived at the game.

“I haven’t seen that since high school,” Fish said.

Montana State guard Devonte Klines drive to the hoop with Northern Arizona guard Geno Littles (3) defending/by Brooks Nuanez

The loss drops Montana State to 11-10 this season. The Bobcats have a quick turnaround, hosting Southern Utah on Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m. The Thunderbirds suffered a 71-47 loss to Montana in Missoula on Thursday. MSU beat Southern Utah 104-99 behind 36 points from Hall in Cedar City in the first game of Big Sky play for both teams on December 28.

“You have to grind and it’s adversity,” Fish said. “You’ve got to get better each day and we have to get better and come ready to go because we are playing a very good Southern Utah team.”

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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